Defining 2013 in Games
The ten titles which made the year, for better or for worse
First things first, there's something we should make clear. This is not a list of 2013's best games. Nor is it a list of our favourites. This is a collection of those games which we've felt have, in one way or another, defined or embodied a continuing trend or nascent shift - games which we think will be reflected upon as turning points or quintessential examples in future analysis of industry movements.
To that end, they're predictions of sorts, even though they've been compiled with some of the benefits of hindsight, so there may be a few outliers in here which chime a little off-key in 12 months time. They're also unlikely to be exactly the games that you were thinking of, and we'll welcome any observations about omissions or unworthy inclusions in the comments below, but we've tried to cover as many strata of the business as possible, which means cherry picking titles in each area. They're also in no particular order, although some have undoubtedly had more impact than others.
Anyway, that's enough caveats. On with the list.
Super Mario 3D World
Here's the thing. This is a wonderful, wonderful game. It's a incredible distillation of all things Mario, given glorious new vigour in its resplendent HD trappings. Yes, it's Mario again, but the ideas factory at Nintendo has outdone itself yet again with an embarrassment of gameplay riches, tossing away ideas which could have been the central mechanic for lesser titles after a single level's use. It's the game that should have been a system seller, a chart topper, a Christmas day delight. But it hasn't been. It's languished in the retail table and failed to ignite the dormant and somewhat soggy fuse of the Wii U's sales figures.
It's not news that the Wii U is struggling, and I take no pleasure in reiterating it here, but Nintendo reps and fans alike have plodded out a list of usual suspects as the games which will suddenly turn its ailing fortunes around. Pikmin 3 didn't do it, Mario hasn't done it and now the weight of expectation hangs inevitably heavy around the slender shoulders of Link. As Rob points out here, The Big N has a track record of last-minute rescues, but if you can't sell a system off the back of a tremendous game in your flagship series, something has got to give.
These golden franchises are not dead, though, far from it - you only need compare this performance with that of Animal Crossing or Pokemon on the 3DS to see that. Nonetheless, the Wii U's repertoire of escapology tricks is running worryingly thin. Could Nintendo move on and surprise its fans with another new piece of hardware in the midst of what is now very much the current generation, or will it stick to its guns and ride out the storm in the same way it did with the GameCube?
Only Iwata and his boardroom knows, and for now, they're very much standing behind the Wii U.
If you don't already know why Candy Crush is on this list then you probably need to change industry. It might not be very original, particularly interesting, or even that much fun as a game, but by god is it making money. That's indicative of an awful lot about the industry in its current state, as is the presence of over-priced in-app purchases and manipulative psychological structuring, but you can't argue with what the public is spending its time and money on.
King, in fairness, has never claimed to be making games for the hardcore. Its every move has been squarely aimed at capturing a well-off casual market looking to while away a few minutes here and there on the train or toilet - something it's managed with considerable success. This is Angry Birds-level market penetration, so it doesn't matter how sniffily it's dismissed by some quarters - everybody is playing it and a lot of people are paying to do so.
"This is Angry Birds-level market penetration, so it doesn't matter how sniffily it's dismissed by some quarters"
That said, there's a touch of the Zynga about the whole scenario, with investors already showing a yellow streak amidst fears that King might not have another Candy Crush in the bag. Only time will tell, but Candy Crush remains a watershed title for both its owner and the industry at large, much in the same vein as Angry Birds and Clash of Clans.
King's next title, Papa Pear Saga, bears all the hallmarks of a heavy Peggle influence, and will be going up against EA's own reworking of that franchise. Many eyes will be on the outcome of that particular showdown, not least of all the stock market.
If ever there was a textbook example of why people aren't ready to trust always online yet, this is it. Sim City generated headlines aplenty, right from the off, but none of them were pretty. Review scores were many and varied, but disastrous server launch issues were further compounded by the removal of 'non-critical' game features and the offer then subsequent refusal of refunds. For weeks after release, negative opinions and headlines held sway.
In fact, so debilitating were the server issues which accompanied the launch that EA eventually requested that its partners stop promoting the game, in order to limit the number of new players placing extra load on the game's resources whilst emergency surgery was carried out.
Bloodied but unbowed, EA stuck to its guns, defending the decision not to include an offline mode in the face of a predictably furious consumer backlash. That might seem brazen, but let's not forget that these problems were largely a result of the game's success, which saw 1.1 million sales in a fortnight, slowing during the furore to hit 1.6 million a little later.
Far from the first company to feel the wrath of its customers thanks to underestimating the resources needed by a game requiring servers, EA could at least take solace in a lesson well learned on the nature of online launches. At least you'd hope so.
Another well received game that ended up pulling column inches for a lot of the wrong reasons, Tomb Raider's prequel reboot tried to reinvent Lara as a more believable, less sexualised heroine. Reducing her cup-size may have gone some way to transforming her from teen-fantasy to potential role model, but Square-Enix's decision to encourage empathy with a scene of sexual predation left it firmly under the lens of the male gaze, drawing considerable fire from many corners of the media.
That scandal endured, Tomb Raider scored highly and attracted a great deal of praise, giving the venerable series a new lease of life and securing it a new generation of fans. But, according to the quarterly reports filed from Square Enix's financial department, that wasn't quite enough.
"Despite shifting 3.4 million units worldwide within a quarter, Tomb Raider joined Sleeping Dogs and Hitman: Absolution in missing somewhat optimistic sales targets by a considerable margin"
Despite shifting 3.4 million units worldwide within a quarter, Tomb Raider joined Sleeping Dogs and Hitman: Absolution in missing somewhat optimistic sales targets by a considerable margin. Developer Crystal Dynamics, clearly stung with that rebuttal following their critical success, were quick to point out that the game had enjoyed a better launch than any other title in the series' history. Let's hope they get another crack of the whip.
Grand Theft Auto V
Proof, if proof were needed, that you can teach an old dog new tricks - and people will buy it by the boatload. Rockstar and the Housers did what they do best once more by slipping in during the last months of a console generation's life and nailing a huge AAA global release and securing the title of world's fastest-selling entertainment product. Again.
Not only that, but this time around the boxed-product monolith dipped its toes in some new waters, with the addition of microtransaction options for its multiplayer only online mode. That came with its own problems, with Rockstar experiencing the same underestimation of demand that so blighted EA. Some other unforeseen issues were raised by hardware being pushed to its limits, too - with the question now on everyone's lips of just how long Rockstar plans to wait until announcing the inevitable PC and next-gen versions.
It wouldn't be a GTA launch without the usual attendant controversy, but this year's debut saw less vitriolic mainstream headlines and a more sensibly targeted approach to the valid criticisms which remained. As Dan Houser said himself, GTA has had to evolve, pushing itself to an ever higher bar of storytelling and action, becoming more nuanced as its audience has matured. For all the talk of the death of consoles, boxed games and stories about explosions, GTA is still the heavyweight champion of the world.
Forza 5/Gran Turismo 6
What is it with racing games and microtransactions? As CSR Racing proved so successfully last year, the genre can be a rich vein for both free-to-play and additional in-game purchase profits, but this year a late trend has developed which has seen customers being invited to splash huge amounts of money on cars, paintjobs and repairs after they've already put down their £50 (or $60 in the US) for a disc in a box.
Forza 5 took the brunt of the backlash for this, by virtue of being released first. Still, being asked for up to £32.50 to shortcut a new car is a painful sting in the tail for customers used to owning a disc and being done with it.
Of course, it's all optional. This purchasable content isn't something exclusive, it's not DLC which you can't unlock elsewhere - everything you can pay these seemingly extortionate prices for can be achieved with good old-fashioned gameplay grind if you're willing. And there's sort of the rub, for me at least. That's what getting those top-level pieces of equipment, those buried secrets and that legendary gear, used to be about. It was digging into every last corner of a game, squeezing your money's worth out of it by playing it for endless hours.
"paying extra so you can play less of a game just seems like a terrible philosophy"
I know it's old fashioned of me, especially having already called out anyone who doesn't understand the importance of Candy Crush, but paying extra so you can play less of a game just seems like a terrible philosophy. I get it, some people don't have time for War and Peace and just want the Reader's Digest version or the Cliff notes, but I don't buy a Kindle book then pay extra to have all the subplots and minor characters removed.
That's another story, though, and appropriately enough we don't have time to tell it here. For a bigger picture, I'd recommend Rob's column on the isue, or this angle from Eurogamer's Martin Robinson.
I like Ben Cousins a lot. He's a charming and affable man in the flesh, someone who clearly believes in a future of better game design. I'll go so far as to say, though, that I'd understand if you hadn't grasped all that by merely following him on Twitter.
Ben's a man with strong opinions and, as we're all regularly reminded, 140 characters isn't always the best way to make a nuanced argument. Since leaving EA's free-to-play arm a couple of years ago to form a Swedish branch of ngmoco, Cousins has been characteristically forthright in his opinions of the relative fates of tablet, PC and console lead development, predicting the death of the dedicated gaming box as hardcore players switch to PC and the casual audience shifts to tablets.
This year, he got the chance to prove his point, as Scattered Entertainment released The Drowning, a console-style FPS for tablet with a copyrighted control scheme and a core-gamer focus - exactly the sort of thing the mobile market has been promising console gamers for years. However, after an extended beta period and a staggered worldwide release, the Drowning sort of fizzled out, failing to make the big impact Cousins had hoped it would. Moderate review scores and the laser-paced mobile market meant it got little chance to rally.
To see a game from a talented team miss its target is never a nice thing to witness, but having backed it to the hilt, there was an awkward silence as the Drowning slipped under the waves.
Typically enough, Cousins took it all in his stride, adding the 4/10 score the game received from Eurogamer to his Twitter bio and moving on with head held high. There's little doubt that Cousins' ambitions remain unquenched, and with Bungie co-founder Alex Seropian's Industrial Toys also aiming to break the AAA handheld FPS market, we're unlikely to have seen the last of the genre, either.
2013 has been the perfect year to roll out cheesily adapted analogies about waiting for space buses, as any number of free-form space sims have surfaced after the genre had lain largely dormant for a number of years. Frontier's Elite: Dangerous cleared its £1.25 million Kickstarter goal in the very early days of the year, and December's VGX awards gave a platform to surprise new contender No Man's Sky, a gorgeous, procedurally generated game from the delightfully ambitious four-man Hello Games.
Still, there's only one game in the genre which has been truly dominating headlines this year, and that's Chris Roberts' Star Citizen, a game which perfectly highlights the continuing success story of the crowd-funding explosion even more aptly than it does the return of the space epic.
"On December 7, 2013, Roberts posted to the game's official site, revealing that total funding now stands at over $34 million"
We've written a lot of headlines about this spiritual successor to Wing Commander since it busted through its initial Kickstarter target of $500,000 last October, and every single one has included big numbers. By adopting a multi-pronged approach to crowd-funding by utilising both established third-party systems and his own site to raise funds, Roberts has made that initial target look increasingly modest. $6 million and $9 million totals were breezed through, and at $10 million Star Citizen became the biggest crowd-funded game of all time, with Cloud Imperium announcing the founding of its own capture studio.
By late September that record-breaking total had more than doubled to over $20 million. Another month brought another $5 million, bringing the total to something in parallel with the budget of Quantic Dreams' Beyond.
It is, in the truest sense of the word, incredible, and if anything the process is accelerating. On December 7, 2013, Roberts posted to the game's official site, revealing that total funding now stands at over $34 million as the exponential publicity and well-managed rewards system bring more and more customers to the doors of Roberts Space Industries.
Like all of the headline crowd-funded projects, we're yet to see the fruit of all of these labours, let alone appreciate whether there's any room left for selling profit-making copies once funders receive their games. Going on the current evidence, though, Roberts is very much at the helm of an enterprise which is really going somewhere.
Beyond: Two Souls
Mentioning Beyond merely as a comparative statistic for Star Citizen seems a little trite, as Quantic Dreams latest motion-capture epic is certainly notable in its own right, although perhaps not for all of the reasons that auteur David Cage had hoped it would be.
Firstly, Beyond was scored across the board by critics, with reviews ranging from heartily approbational full marks to desultory 30 and 50 percents. However, even though critics were divided on what had been achieved with Beyond, there was a general consensus on what had been the aim: what Cage seems to have been trying to make was not a game at all, but an interactive film.
To anyone who has played any of his work before, that might not come as much of a surprise, but as motion capture technology and graphical definition has progressed, Cage and Quantic Dream have been able to come ever closer to realising that goal. Heavy Rain, with its beautiful presentation and depiction of everyday minutiae as well as action-packed fist fights and grimy police work, was a big step in that direction, but Beyond took it even further, presenting the game in a super widescreen format usually reserved for movies and employing the considerable talents of Hollywood stars Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe in major roles.
Whilst the addition of that world-calibre acting talent and the incredible performance fidelity offered by modern motion-capture certainly did wonders for the game's verisimilitude, many critics felt that it lacked in agency and interaction, with more than one reviewer noting that every QTE in the game could be completely ignored without Page's main character dying or the game's progress being arrested.
There are over a dozen endings to Beyond, so those interactions, as limited as they may have been, were certainly not completely pointless, but Quantic Dream found itself sitting very much chasing two rabbits here, and ended up catching neither. Cage has repeatedly clarified that he's not about making money, that he's a story teller working on the frontiers of a medium which is still finding its feet as a narrative tool. His studio's games are certainly unique, but it's hard to imagine that he's not going to be expected to turn profits as well as establishing his artform.
Spelunky might seem like an odd choice for this year's list, given that it came out on PC in 2009 and saw its major reboot on Xbox 360 in 2012, but what we're referencing here is the release of the game on Vita, which happened in the latter half of this year.
It might not have been one of the year's big releases, but it's a perfect example of the Vita's catalogue diversification which has been so brilliantly enacted by Shahid Kamal and his team at Sony's Strategic Content division. By securing popular niche indie games like Spelunky, Thomas Was Alone, Velocity and Hotline Miami for the platform, Sony has reinjected the cool factor which was always the PlayStation USP.
"cheap, immensely replayable and tremendous amounts of fun - a trinity of qualities which fits the needs of the vast majority of consumers exactly"
Written off by many as dead in the water, Sony's plans for the Vita extend well beyond life as a home for quirky indie platformers. Remote play and second screen functionality has been implemented almost flawlessly for the PS4, and the corporation is expecting to see Vita sales increasing as PS4 owners commit further to the PlayStation ecosystem.
Rock hard but completely accessible, Spelunky's cult-classic status has remained despite it being catapulted into the limelight on nearly every major platform, another reason for its inclusion here. With indie games increasingly representing the bulk of new thinking in gaming, both Sony and Microsoft's engagement with smaller studios is going to be crucial to combating sequel fatigue this generation. Games like Spelunky represent simple ideas executed well, adapting to new platforms and capturing audiences well outside the FIFA, COD and GTA crowd, albeit with some considerable overlap, too.
It's also cheap, immensely replayable and tremendous amounts of fun - a trinity of qualities which fits the needs of the vast majority of consumers exactly.