This was a hard list to write, for a lot of reasons. Of course, I have my own personal disappointments -- where the hell is the U.S. version of Bravely Default? -- but they don't necessarily stop the industry in its tracks.
There's also something unpalatable about reflecting on disappointment. One's mind wants to bounce over the surface of the emotion, like a rock skipping on a pond, without diving in. And trying to think back and remember what was disappointing is an odd experience. Can you?
Some things, though, simply stood out to me, and once I gave in to the feeling, it was easy to come up with a list of letdowns.
Almost a year ago, Star Wars: The Old Republic launched amidst tremendous fanfare and confident projections from publisher Electronic Arts about its commercial potential. Astute observers had noted signs of trouble for years; many had questioned whether or not BioWare's strength in single player storytelling would translate to an MMO; whether too much money was being spent on the game's development; whether the subscription model still worked, and other concerns.
Well, things went just about as badly as they could have, in the end. Yes, the initial sell-through was strong, but that was the last good news about the game. The Old Republic's design was panned as uninventive; the player population dwindled precipitously when subscribers reached the end of the game's scripted content; by the middle of the year, EA had already announced plans to take the MMO free-to-play to shore up its sagging server populations. For what's reputedly the most expensive game ever developed, this is not a good outcome.
The PlayStation Vita is the most capable dedicated handheld gaming device ever launched -- and apparently the most undesirable. While Sony made sure that the launch was supported with an outing from the Uncharted series and a host of other games across various genres, software support has since been anemic the world over, and sales of both hardware and games have followed in kind.
Japanese gamers are content to stick with the PSP, which continues to be the favorite system of die-hards, or migrate to Nintendo's 3DS, which has become a resounding success in that territory over the past year. Western gamers are essentially avoiding the system altogether. Insider reports of the sales of what should have been the system's flagship Western holiday title, Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified, are commensurate with its Metacritic score (31, as of this writing.)
The top game for the system -- in both Japan and the U.S. -- is Persona 4: Golden, a port of a four year old PlayStation 2 game. That is a sad condemnation of the system, quality of the game aside, and an indication that Sony never understood its audience of hardcore early adopters, widely missing the mark with its software lineup.
No matter how problematic it may be this lineup, apparently, is something Sony seems to -- for some reason -- have little interest in anymore. E3, Gamescom, and Tokyo Game Show went by with a single outstanding title revealed -- Media Molecule's Tearaway, which will be a very lonely game indeed.
With Call of Duty all but assuredly a failure, the Vita's outlook for 2013 is extremely muted. What Western publisher will touch a system that Call of Duty can't save? With Japan ignoring the system -- it has no announced Final Fantasy titles, a first for a Sony system -- what will those Persona 4 Golden fans move on to?
We've already written about the turning point this year's E3 was for Gamasutra's staff, among others. I won't recapitulate that here. But the show failed on other levels, too.
E3 feels dated. The show, originally launched in 1995, has essentially remained unchanged -- except for two years of flirtations with new formats in 2007 and 2008 which were, if anything, worse.
Think back to those years. The show's management, recognizing that it had become a ridiculous spectacle, hideously expensive and inefficient, scaled back wildly to restrict the expo to the press and those who had real business to do.
Fast forward to 2012, and the show is just as huge and loud and tacky as ever it was; it's just as choked with retail employees and others who have no actual business to conduct at the event. In fact, more games than ever are now exclusively behind closed doors, a tacit acknowledgment of how many unwanted civvies are getting in -- which is also reflected in how all the booths have been completely reduced to tacky spectacles, with a focus on booth babes, aliens, cars, celebrities, and other distractions.
But also look at the swelling attendance of Gamescom and Tokyo Game Show, which let in the masses in an honest way -- and manage to separate the business and public aspects of the show very effectively. Look at PAX, which is a wholehearted celebration of games for gamers, with the community gathering to enjoy its hobby together. E3 is simply a showcase for the biggest, loudest, most crass and most powerful forces in the core game business, and without indies and other players outside of the triple-A console space, doesn't represent the industry as it really is.
Where's the vibrancy of the game industry we know and love? Elsewhere, it seems.
The pitch was fantastic: Indies having trouble? No problem. We don't have the time to deal with this problem internally, so we'll crowdsource a solution. The result, though, was severely problematic at launch, and still isn't quite right.
The original problem with the system -- the fact that Steam users could downvote games they weren't interested in, which lead to lots of partisan bashing of innocent titles -- was quickly fixed. But good games by serious indie developers, like Incredipede, are getting overlooked in favor of irredeemable trash like Postal 2. It has quickly devolved into a popularity contest, and what's popular is -- turns out -- not always great.
Now, games that are very far from release are getting into the voting, confusing its purpose. Is it meant to be a gateway for new games, or a way for the Steam community to vote on what it thinks might be interesting?
There's no doubt that Greenlight will become a valuable part of Steam, but it hasn't gotten there yet, leaving many of the people it was devised to help wanting more.
When Keiji Inafune, Capcom's head of R&D, stepped down a couple of years ago, inside sources say that the franchise he created -- which was once the flagship property of the company he'd worked for since the 1980s -- was vanished. Games in development, both announced and unannounced, were unceremoniously killed. Mega Man was put on ice.
But 1987 was the year Mega Man was born, and you would have expected some meaningful acknowledgment of this from the company. Few publishers have vibrant, appealing franchises that date back to the NES days -- or ones so ripe for a reimagining, ones with such a passionate fan base.
Not so for Mega Man. So far we've seen the release of the (so far) Japan-only Rockman Xover, a social RPG for phones -- tenuously connected the anniversary at best -- and Street Fighter x Mega Man, a fan-made hack given legitimacy by Capcom USA's marketing department, desperate to stamp the otherwise unused Mega Man 25th Anniversary logo on something this year.
This is a sad testament to how politics can actually kill a beloved character; how we, as an industry, still suck at celebrating our past; and how potentially powerful franchises are left on the vine in the search for the next big thing.