It was a year of transition. In 2011, the implications of the rise of mobile and social games became inescapable, even to the industry's longest lived companies. Virtually every major publisher made significant strides towards true multi-platform development, pointing towards an imminent future where the AAA products on which their businesses are built will be flanked by complementary mobile and social experiences with a variety of different business models.
In addition, companies like Epic began to see mobile as a blockbuster platform in its own right, reaping the rewards from a brace of Infinity Blade releases.
The ubiquity of low-cost, budget-priced games and a deteriorating economic climate placed near intolerable pressure on blockbuster releases to succeed - and many did. Modern Warfare 3 generated $1 billion in revenue faster than Avatar, faster than Harry Potter. Activision has shouted loudly about Call of Duty's importance to gaming's mainstream penetration ever since World at War, but this year its claims had the unmistakable ring of truth. Modern Warfare 3 really was the year's hot ticket, regardless of medium.
If 2011 is any barometer mid-size publishers like Sega and THQ will struggle greatly in the year ahead
It was also a sequel, and this year had no shortage of iterative releases. Complaints about the death of originality were premature, however, as games like Batman: Arkham City, Skyrim, Portal 2, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Uncharted 3 and others proved. In times of rapid change and financial uncertainty, franchises were pretty much the only comfort left to AAA publishers, and anyone without a portfolio of major brands to leverage inevitably felt the pinch.
If 2011 is any barometer, mid-size publishers like Sega and THQ will struggle greatly in the year ahead, and the possibility of one or more such companies not surviving the transition to a new generation of consoles no longer seems far-fetched. The gulf between the high-earning mega-franchises at one end and cheap, accessible digital products at the other became wider and more clearly defined. Companies of all sizes and stripes were plagued by redundancies - from Disney, THQ and Activision to Silicon Knights, CCP and Ignition - forcing them to further consolidate their positions.
It wasn't all bad news, though. With every fresh round of redundancies came a new wave of start-up developers with big ideas and open minds. Two of the UK's key closures gave rise to at least six new studios: Hogrocket, Totem Games and Lucid Games from Bizarre Creations, and West Pier Studios, RoundCube Entertainment and Shortround Games from Black Rock Studios.
Will the new generation of consoles - so often a talking point in the last few months of 2011 - make this new wave of developers welcome, opening their traditionally closed walls to a greater variety of content, pricing and business models? A definitive answer is impossible to give, but it seems unlikely that Sony and Microsoft will ignore the new pressures being applied to those seeking to create and sell videogames.
The Biggest Stories Of 2011: Console & PC
Everyone got hacked, especially Sony: Sony wasn't the only company to be plagued by hackers this year. Sega, Codemasters, Square Enix, and even Valve's widely admired Steam were all beset by cyber-crime, but the attack on the PlayStation Network, which took the service offline for nearly six weeks, was an ideal demonstration of how damaging the actions of a few motivated individuals can be. Sony recovered swiftly, and handled the aftermath with generosity and humility, but in the midst of the crisis there wasn't a company in the industry that didn't take a long, hard look at their own precautions against such an event. And as an advert for Xbox Live, it will really take some beating.
Team Bondi's ignoble exit: Genuine scandals are rare in the games business, but the implosion of Team Bondi mere months after the release of its lauded debut game, L.A. Noire, was 2011's biggest and juiciest story. Starting with the testimony of a handful of anonymous former employees, the unfolding crisis perfectly encapsulated the industry's longstanding concerns over the demands it places on its workers. Sadly, the workers suffered the most, with dozens losing their jobs and bonuses as the ongoing negative press sabotaged any hope of Team Bondi securing a new development deal. This is one cautionary tale we don't want to revisit in 2012.
Nintendo slashes profit forecast, 3DS: It hasn't been a vintage year for Nintendo: sales of the Wii slumped, the unveiling of the Wii U elicited a mixed response from the industry, and the 3DS seemed to be struggling in a market redefined by the rise of mobile gaming. It all came to a head in July, when the publication of its first-quarter financial results prompted the company to slash its profit forecast by 82 per cent, sending its stock into free-fall. The nadir was the 3DS price-cut - a massive 40 per cent reduction just four months after launch that left many devoted Nintendo customers feeling cheated, and with good cause. Next year will almost certainly be better for Nintendo, but it has yet to assuage many of the doubts raised about the future of the handheld market and the company's strategy as a whole.
EA doubles down on digital: The $750 million Electronic Arts paid for PopCap - not to mention the hundreds of millions tied up in earn-out clauses - can be seen as evidence of a price bubble in the social gaming space, but the fact that EA chose to meet that price is even stronger evidence of the company's commitment to growing its digital business. No other major publisher has been so aggressive in safeguarding itself against the shifting future of the industry, and Origin was EA's second major play in this regard. Is it a realistic competitor for Steam? It is still far too early to say, but EA has both the will and the IP to make it work.
Product Of The Year: Minecraft
On January 13, 2011, Minecraft reached 1 million sales. As the year draws to a close its sales are comfortably north of 4 million, it receives more than 1000 logins every hour, there are Android and iOS versions currently on-sale, and a Kinect-enabled Xbox Live version in development. Oh, and it now has its very own annual festival, MineCon. To say that Mojang has had a good year would be a gross understatement, and although Modern Warfare 3 or The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim could easily have filled this slot, there is something deeply satisfying about Minecraft's success - a feel-good story of what talented people can accomplish with the tools of the digital age.
Company Of The Year: Microsoft
The fact that both Nintendo and Sony suffered considerable set-backs this year shouldn't detract from what Microsoft has achieved with the Xbox 360. The astounding Black Friday sales figures simply confirmed what has been proven month-after-month this year, and a series of successful improvements to Xbox Live has left its online offering in an unassailable position. Granted, the recent dashboard update was given a cool reception by indie game designers, but beyond some inevitable niggles it was a slick and effective illustration of what Microsoft sees as the future of the Xbox brand. A new generation of consoles will start to appear next year, and on the strength of 2011 Microsoft is better placed than either of its competitors to make a running start.