Game On: The Winners of 2013
From grassroots to giant robots - who ended the year at the top of their game?
It's easy to knock those that had a poor run in 2013, as mistakes stick out more prominently than successes. So while we've already covered those we've labelled the losers of the year, its important to balance that with some positivity. And to be honest, it's been one of those most positive years in the video game business I can remember.
New hardware has lifted the console market, experimental tech has gained momentum, creativity has returned to games ten-fold, genres are spawning other genres, the player is spoilt for choice and marketing has returned to a grassroots level. Here then are our winners of 2013...
Twitch ends the year as a central part of the PlayStation 4 console, riding high on a successful launch from Sony and into everyday usage by console games players. There may have been a hiccup with nudity (it turns out if you give some people a camera and access to the internet they'll take their clothes off - who knew?), but PlayStation 4 now accounts for 10 per cent of all Twitch streaming. One little Share button on a controller prompted 100,000 people to stream their games on Twitch in the first month of launch. Watch that continue to grow.
"Twitch is a threat to any online company that makes money from advertising, not least the old guard video games media"
The company is riding two waves this year - the resurgence of the video games business and the popularity of online video. With $20 million in fresh funding (some of which, tellingly, comes from Grand Theft Auto V publisher Take-Two), the business intends to grow its advertising resources. Twitch is a threat to any online company that makes money from advertising, not least the old guard video games media who will be competing directly with this new, buzzing, easy-to-use and accessible outlet.
Consoles aren't a single factor in increasing the popularity of Twitch of course. Broadcasting and streaming PC gaming is still at the heart of it, but consoles are pop culture, and help raise profiles in the mainstream consciousness. And it only becomes more accessible to the user as YouTube continues to indiscriminately stomp on its users, and Microsoft's Xbox One allows streaming from its console next year. Expect your social media timelines to become flooded with Titanfall footage in 2014. Because 45 million users can't be wrong.
Finland and Sweden
Okay, it's a bit of a cop out to lump two regions together. So we'll add Denmark and Norway to the mix and call it Scandinavia at the risk of offending anyone with such generalisations. But from an outsider's perspective there is no livelier, friendly, more productive or downright talented collective of games creators at this point in time. The names are leaders in their fields - and that's pretty much every field in games.
"The names are leaders in their fields - and that's pretty much every field in games"
There's Supercell's continued dominance in the free-to-play mobile markets with Hayday and Clash of Clans, the incredible high-end Frostbite tech behind DICE's Battlefield 4 - technology that's now being used in multiple Electronic Arts games. Avalanche's one-to-watch Mad Max, Remedy's ambitious storytelling and TV crossover Quantum Break, Housemarque's PlayStation 4 cult debut Resogun, Starbreeze and Overkill's digital sellers Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and Payday, those chaps at Mojang with their Scrolls and their ever-living Minecraft and Ubisoft's Massive Entertainment, finally breaking out in their own right with The Division. Oh, and Paradox, a publisher that exists in its own grand strategy ecosystem. And Simogo with Device 6 and Year Walk...
We could probably go on. This is a region that's pushing out incredible games, grabbing headlines and hoovering up cash, from the pennies down the back of the sofa to the billions in the bank - nothing is left on the table. And for good reason. And we also like the fact that when you go for a drink in that part of the world they have outdoor heaters and the waiter will bring out a blanket for your knees. You don't get that in Guildford.
Titanfall is Microsoft's biggest Xbox One game and it's not even out yet. The format holder is putting all of its weight around Respawn's brand new title, due in March 2014, alongside the marketing muscle of publisher Electronic Arts. That's a triple threat to the PlayStation 4 business during the first half of the coming year and no amount of hype for Destiny (a multiplatform release which doesn't seem to have nearly the same amount of buzz) will dampen it. We're almost calling it before it's out, but I've seen veteran, calm and professional games journalists quite simply lose their shit over Titanfall. It's that kind of game. And have you seen the queue for this game at public events? It takes hours to get 15 minutes of hands-on time. This is a game that is effectively going to relaunch the Xbox One.
"This is a game that is effectively going to relaunch the Xbox One"
Respawn was of course a studio set up by ex-Infinity Ward employees Vince Zampella and Jason West, who went solo after messy legal and business issues with their old publisher Activision. There was a danger that high-profile drama would overshadow the games the company makes, but after all the legal fuss the departure of Jason West earlier this year had seemingly little impact on the business or the end product. It's a good sign that all eyes are focused on Titanfall above all else. The press are hyped, the pre-orders are rolling in and the console business is ready for a first quarter uplift from new intellectual property. It's a good time to be making triple-A console games again, and Respawn is leading the charge.
In a stellar year, the Oculus team managed to cap it off with $75 million worth of investment to bring its VR headset to the masses. In many ways this cash injection is the final validation the business needs. VR is about to be finally, honestly, seriously, a viable part of the video game business.
"VR is about to be finally, honestly, seriously, a viable part of the video game business"
But lets step back a little. Validation for Oculus has come from many quarters. It started with a Kickstarter project where people bought into the dream. VR has been knocking around in various forms over the years and it's never had a lack of support in theory, but here were supporters pledging serious money for a beta product. Then the development community got its hands on it and the buzz began to build, but there was always the concern that this may be too niche a product - a great toy for developers to express themselves but lacking in commercial possibilities. Then came the big names - with id Software genius John Carmack at first a champion for the product before deciding he liked it so much he was going to join the company. Where Carmack leads others follow.
Now with investment for a real consumer version of the Oculus Rift and backed by 40,000 developers and partners, Oculus has all the momentum to blaze a new path for interaction in video games. All the signs point to 2014 as an even stronger year for one of the most exciting companies in the business.
To be honest, independent developers continue to be in a great position of freedom once again in 2013 and going into 2014. As they did in 2012 and quite possibly 2011 before that. It's no surprise now that they get just as many headlines, just as much priority on the digital store shelves, just as much well-deserved attention and proportionally impressive sales success as any other part of the business.
The year has been full of little victories, too many to mention. From mobile, PC and Steam to Vita, PS4 and soon Xbox One, every channel to consumer is accessible to independent games developers. There may be some barriers and the fight is tough, but it is for every company, big or small and regardless of their status. To think of indies as a marginal part of the business, punching above its weight for attention and sales, is out of date. And forget about romanticising the underdog in the garage, coding late into the evenings before the early start at a full-time job elsewhere. There's never been any fun in being a starving artist.
"Forget about romanticising the underdog. There's never been any fun in being a starving artist"
The next billion dollar franchises will not come from established studios who have been doing the rounds for ten-plus years, churning out iterations of safe games that already have their audience locked down. The next billion dollar franchises, the one's the old-school publishers will wish they could have a slice of, will come from new independent development teams. The games that will grow so quickly and so successfully, seemingly coming from out of nowhere, will find an audience many didn't realise existed, at least not in such scale. Independent developers cater to those audiences, listen to those audiences and eventually create what becomes a product like Minecraft. Because indies are now the mainstream.
Forget the multiple names for this growing genre (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, Hero Brawler, Action Real-Time Strategy) - the important thing is this feels like a new genre despite its history and background as a spin-off from the RTS market. And now there's a lot more choice in MOBAs than just League of Legends.
"The important thing is this feels like a new genre despite its history and background as a spin-off from the RTS market"
Defense of the Ancients 2, Heroes of Newerth, EA's Dawngate, Warhammer 40,000: Storm of Vengeance, Blizzard's Heroes of the Storm, Infinite Crisis based on DC Comics heroes, Ubisoft's rumoured MOBA project, Demon Tribe on iOS from Jet Set Radio and Panzer Dragoon producer Masayoshi Kikuchi - the list is only going to get longer as more developers put their spin on it and more publishers look at the money making potential of it all.
And it's been fine to say in 2013 that you don't really understand MOBAs yet. It's a learning process for a majority of us and there's no shame in it. But the things we know and recognise are clear - there's a rapidly growing audience, it's a very broadcastable genre and as such, there's a potential to continue to grow the e-sports business even more (which brings us back to Twitch, see above). So a growing genre where others are meeting with indifference is a good thing for the players and the business. There may well be a bubble or saturation point over the next 12 months as more companies announce their MOBA plans, but having some of the most credible, forward-thinking businesses at the forefront of this renewed push can only be a good thing for the games industry.