The new console generation is in full swing, but what some people had called the new paradigm quickly turned back into the old one, because the market decided against it. At least, for now, when the market still had a choice. This was the year 2013 in video games and the world that shaped them.
People looking back at 2013 may forget how notable the year was. Not because news of the massive Yahoo hack that affected billions of people, the biggest of its kind in history, was suppressed by the higher-ups of the company, more concerned with getting a golden parachute after a buyout rather than telling people to reset their passwords. Not because of the growing hostilities in the middle east, or the terrorist bombings across the world, the seemingly maddening increase in violence just about everywhere, or the death of Nelson Mandella, which some people ignorant about his life would somehow spin into there being an alternate reality that only they can remember. It was notable because this year, everyone that ever said that “the government” was spying on them, listening to them, tracking their every move, was proven right. The PRISM program, established by the United States Government, with the backing of all major tech companies that sold out their user base, was revealed to the world. Not because the government saw it fit to disclose its illicit espionage, but because a man named Edward Snowden, fed up with what was happening, spilled the beans and then ran away from the country, out of fear he would be locked up in the same dark hole that the US had put other whistleblowers before, and where it planned to put a man named Aaron Swartz. His crime? Copying scientific journals from MIT, that he believed would better serve humanity if they were public. His reward, the government wanted to make an example of him. His story ended in tragedy.
So imagine the reaction of the internet and of the gaming community when Microsoft announced that its new console, the Xbox One, came by default with a camera equipped Kinect device that would always be on, would always be recording and would always be needed for the console to work. It was not a positive one. And no matter how many times a Microsoft representative would tell them to “deal with it”, they wouldn’t take it. Some would look upon this moment and call it evidence of entitlement, that the internet was mad at someone and they got him fired out of pettiness. Others would call it the market making itself heard, and the loudest voice needing to fall on its sword. Not that he would be the only one touting the need for a constant internet connection. A lot of people tied to Microsoft in some way would do this, game developers too. One especially who would one day learn that maybe antagonizing the people you want to buy your games isn’t a good idea. Electronic Arts got in on the act by making a SimCity game that could only be played with a connection to the internet, with predictable results. The servers of this singleplayer game just weren’t up to snuff, making it unplayable. And as it turned out, once people started digging into it, the game wasn’t really all that well thought out, which made all the high scores it was getting seem really suspicious. And yet, some people in the press were defending it, defending the always online component, saying it couldn’t work otherwise, even though people were modding off-line modes in, and Electronic Arts would do as well quite soon. Why did it need to be on-line? Mostly for DRM. Microsoft had at least promised that its always online component meant that games could use the power of the cloud to become better then ever. Now, at the end of this console generation, I can assure you that that was a lie.
Sony got in on the always on-line act as well, not to show support for this always connected future, but to mock it and the promise of Microsoft that you could no longer share game disks with others. Now, sure that move would have bankrupted the game stores that make a lot of money by reselling used games at large prices, but it was mostly a measure to tighten its grip on the audience. One that was visible with last years Windows 8 as well, which I accidentally called Windows 10 in last week’s show. Even Valve reacted to this, by announce its embrace of Linux, launching SteamOS as a gaming oriented Linux distribution, gearing up for the Steam Machine revolution, and never delivering on it. Well, they have started to deliver on it now, in 2018. Not the machine part, but the Linux part. Gaming hardware and software were in a strange place, since AMD, one of the principal hardware vendors of CPUs and video cards, had announced Mantle. A new API meant to solve the problem of poor multi-threaded CPU usage. It would be open, it would be available to all, so naturally no one wanted to touch it.
Much like no investor wanted to touch THQ and save it from bankruptcy. After years of making some great games, and some horrible ones, and had some terrible ideas like the uDraw, it went belly up, and the rest of the industry had a field day at the auctions. Properties were sold off, studios were taken over, some going to better places, others going against their will to Ubisoft.
As for the actual games that came out in 2013. The biggest entertainment launch in history was one of them. Grand Theft Auto 5. A game that to this day continues to make more money that some publishers did in their entire existence. Both because of the appeal of its singleplayer campaign, that let you run amok as 3 criminals through a detailed city, and later because of its on-line multiplayer component. One that was, in one word, terrible. But a big enough attraction, and well monetized enough that it generated enough profit with little investment, to make the development of more content for the singleplayer mode irrelevant.
The amount of money made by GTA 5 can probably only be rivaled by World of Warcraft, League of Legends, and the blossoming mobile game segment, where titles like Clash of Clans, Game of War, Flappy Bird, and the continuing Candy Crush Saga were cleaning up, that is, when their developer wasn’t suing other games called Saga. Like The Banner Saga. One of the many Kickstarted games that were released that year, bringing hope to people that this could be a sustainable method of funding and developing video games. As 2018 has though us, it isn’t. But all the great games we saw in 2013 gave us so much hope that the industry could change, would change. Shadowrun Returns planted the seeds for some awesome cyberpunk adventures. Wasteland 2 made for a bit of a lackluster, but endearing post-apocalyptic roleplaying game. Broken Sword 5 continued the story of a few beloved characters. And many of these games were being developed with the players giving constant feedback. As Mount and Blade’s production had proven a decade before, and Minecraft confirmed, people are willing to pay to play early, to give feedback and to support a project. So we got Steam Early Access, a system that let developers publish their games early, with the hope of them one day actually being finished. Some developers forgot about that part. This was also when we got the first development kits of the Oculus Rift, and the Ouya, sadly.
Outside the crowdfunding scene, there were some amazing titles from small developers. Like Don’t Starve, probably one of the best survival games ever made, created by the highly creative people at Klei Entertainment. There was Brothers a Tale of Two Sons, there was the retail non-mod version of The Stanley Parable. There was the magnificent Papers, Please as well. A game made by an american living in Japan, that was the best rendition of what it felt like to work in the system of a communist, bleak, eastern-european country. X Rebirth proved to be a massive letdown that looked like a canceled Xbox 360 game, that would take half a decade of extra development time to become enjoyable. Surgeon Simulator 2013 became a best selling and actually funny joke game, opening the floodgates for countless unfunny joke games. MechWarrior Online was released out of beta, bringing much disappointment and dismay to fans of the franchise, thankfully things would improve over the next few years, once the publisher was booted and the developer took over monetization. Gas Guzzlers was keeping the combat racing genre alive and well, while no big company seemed to be interested in taking a crack on it anymore.
The Big companies were mostly focused on being big, and failing. Square Enix released a Tomb Raider reboot that tried to be Uncharted instead of Tomb Raider, and with 3.4 million units sold in a month it somehow managed to underperform, pushing the company into a fervor of hacking and slashing employees, mostly from its western studios, mostly to compensate for the massive failure of the original Final Fantasy 14, that needed a complete rebuild, and because the development cost of Final Fantasy 15 was reaching several hundred million dollars and had no end in sight. Crytek released both a Crysis 3 that people seemed to have somewhat enjoyed, and a Ryse Sons of Rome that no one remembers. Activision was lauding the AI of the fish in Call of Duty Ghosts, a game that few people seemed to like, but that still sold countless millions of copies. Gearbox finally released Aliens Colonial Marines, a game it had been developing with Sega’s money for a long time, to much criticism for it being a worthless pile of fail. And much like Gearbox did with Duke Nukem Forever, it deflected criticism and blamed it on everyone other than them. The situation was complicated because the studio had previously shown gameplay from the game, at E3, that turned out to not actually be from the game, but a total lie, prompting authorities to insist that non-actual gameplay be clearly marked. Five years later it also turned out that there was a typo in a file that made the AI of the games aliens worse than it could have been. Simply put, Gearbox did not care as long as Borderlands was profitable. And to end the cavalcade of failure, against better judgment, 2K released X:Com The Bureau. It probably shouldn’t have. And Rome 2 Total War really made people want to reinstall the first one, only to realize it now ran really badly on their PCs for some reason.
But in the realm of AAA games done right. In spite of antagonizing the fanbase, the new Devil May Cry was an OK game. Bioshock Infinite had a superb story with gameplay so watered down you could confuse it for a Call of Duty game. Metal Gear Revengeance succeeded at showing us that a great Metal Gear game was possible without Kojima, especially when it became a bit more earnest about the stupidity of its nanomachines, Son. The Last of Us gave kinda the same story as Telltale’s The Walking dead, but with more violence, and Ubisoft managed to bring a breath of fresh air to Assassin’s Creed, by making Black Flag, a game that partially focused on pirate ship battles. Sadly, the majority of it was still a stale, repetitive, lackluster Assassin’s Creed game. Thakfully, Ubisoft also made Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon, a game that was genuinely entertaining, and entrenched in the growing nostalgia for the ‘80s
I know there were more games, as I’ve said before, there are too many to count these days. But I feel that these cover a descriptive range of titles. Well, that and the announced EverQuest Next, a game that promised to redefine the MMO in ways it needed to be redefined years and years ago. Such a shame it would get canceled really soon.
So what was the game of 2013? Well, back when I was working in the gaming press, I gave that title to the demo of The Stanley Parable, because it was a game onto itself, individual, self contained and magnificent. A true work of art. But looking back, I have to say it was Path of Exile. After the disappointment that was Diablo 3, here was Grinding Gear Games with a fraction of a fraction of the resources that Blizzard had at its disposal, capable enough to make a Diablo game that was more like Diablo than Diablo. A studio brave enough to not think the players would be too dumb to understand randomly dropped skills, or a giant, downright daunting passive wheel, allowing for massive amounts of customization, non of which were based on an auction house, but on actually playing the game. And most of all, it was free. And not free in the sense that, you play 10 levels and then we bleed you dry through micro-transactions, and you have to pay 25 dollars for a new class. But fully free, only cosmetics and extra stash tabs could be bought, and the stash itself was still many times bigger than what Diablo 2 had. It was a game made by people that had a clear passion for something that was no longer anything more than a money milking machine for its current owners. And they succeeded. They made the sequel to Diablo 2 that everyone wanted. They upstaged the AAA powerhouse with a game that didn’t sacrifice depth for the sake of success. And for that, for that victory, for what it symbolized, it is the game of 2013.
Next week we move onto some really sad events. Goodbye.
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