Is it just me, or was 2012 a bit shit?
It seems that the games industry has forgotten what used to make games amazing. And the business side of things seems to have become uglier than ever…
The slow death of the consoles
Another year, and a whole lot more studio closures, not helped by the somewhat predictable flop of the Vita (and Sony axing studios they’d set to work on Vita titles). And now we’ve had a very underwhelming Wii U launch, too. I’m not sure even Nintendo knew what they were going to do with that controller-screen, and without a successful gimmick, they’re basically launching a current-gen console just a year or so before the next generation arrives…
So now we’ve got a new Xbox and Playstation expected within the next year or two. For the first time ever, a new generation of consoles that won’t show a huge step forwards graphically from what we’ve got now. (nothing like the previous jump to to HD+shaders) I’m not really sure how they’ll sell them. And with development costs so high, I can’t see there being many next-gen exclusives other than a few big titles funded by MS/Sony.
I think we’re going to see cross-platform development reach a somewhat extreme level, with developers supporting 5-6 platforms (New Xbox, New Playstation, 360, PS3, Wii U, and maybe PC). Ouch, I wouldn’t like to be anywhere near a 6-platform end-of-project crunch… now that’s going to be painful!
Although maybe that wouldn’t be so bad if the next-gen versions ran at 60fps, and current-gen at 30fps. But sadly, in the console development world, 60fps seems dead.
Thirty fails per second
Yes, the demise of 60fps console gaming has continued, and it seems that there’s little chance of the console world ever returning to that ‘one true framerate’ that we so enjoyed in the 16bit days, and on all those mid-90s arcade games. We’ve seen Devil May Cry and Forza joining the growing list of franchises that dropped to the ‘dirty thirty’. Carmack predicts that 30fps is sadly here to stay, even on next-gen hardware.
Personally, I blame YouTube, for not supporting high-framerate video on the web. With no way to see the glorious fluidity of 60fps in online promotional videos, it all comes down to screenshots.
Far too many people, even in the industry, still claim ‘but you can’t see more than 24-30fps anyway’. This is clearly bullshit. Try to make a scrolling 2D game, or a fast-paced rhythm game, at 30fps, and it looks, well, shocking. If 60fps wasn’t clearly better, then why did all those arcade game developers back in the 90s choose more framerate instead of more detail when making early 3D classics such as Ridge Racer, Daytona, Sega Rally, Virtua Cop, and many more – on much more limited and challenging hardware than we have today?
But it’s not just the issue of promoting a 60fps game online, or even the technical challenges/risks involved in making one. It’s also that there’s too many wannabe-movie-makers in the games industry these days. People that genuinely believe that 30fps is better, as it’s closer to the ‘magic 24fps’ of movies. People who don’t realise that 24fps simply came from a trade-off between smoothness and cost when using old film cameras to make movies. And people who don’t want to accept that game are not movies – for interactive games, you need to see all the action clearly. For non-interactive movies, you can let the viewer’s imagination fill in the gaps.
It seemed a great thing that in the film world directors were starting to question 24fps, and try to do better. It was great news that The Hobbit was being filmed at 48fps, but sad how quick the critics/reviewer were to slate it – so conditioned into only accepting 24fps as ‘cinematic’, and unwilling to consider anything else. Admittedly, I’ve not seen it yet – haven’t located a 48fps showing locally, but I’m looking forward to seeing that. I’m not a fan of 3D myself though… kind of wish there was a 48fps 2D version too!
But at least it’s been an attempt by the movie world to move forwards, whilst the gaming world still seems to move backwards… But with consoles dying, maybe it won’t be a big deal for long. Many PC gamers, indie devs, and mobile devs still value good framerates!
The closing of Windows
The biggest and ugliest news of the year was Windows 8, which is really a glimpse at Microsoft’s plans for the future of Windows. Clearly, Windows 8 is one heck of a clusterfuck, but it’s sad that most commentators have just talked about it simply as a huge UI design failure. But really, it’s about far more than that.
Microsoft have seen Apple’s iOS success, and are desparate to imitate it. They want that locked-down platform, with an App Store as the only place software can be obtained, where all developers can be charged 30%+ of all revenue to develop for the platform. And they’re willing to sacrifice everything to get it.
To Microsoft, Win8 isn’t broken. The ‘fix’ for all the ugly Metro<->Desktop switching is simple: Remove the desktop. That is clearly their new vision for consumer versions of Windows. Like iOS, it will be a platform which is solely for consuming content, and utterly useless for *creating* anything. And yes, it’s already here, on sale, as Windows 8 RT.
The whole thing has certainly got Valve scared. They’re making huge amounts of money from Steam, and a closed Windows threatens it all. So they’re trying to make a move to Linux. But Linux is under threat too, from ongoing UEFI Secure Boot shenanigans, which could make it impossible to boot Linux on future ‘designed for Win8′ x86 hardware. But that’s OK, there’s a ‘Steam Console’ on the way… So as gamers, you’ve got a choice between Microsoft’s closed, locked-down platform, and Valve’s closed, locked-down platform…
The real question is how Microsoft will treat developers and enterprise users in this ‘Closed Windows’ world. They can’t kill the desktop entirely, can they? I suspect that we’ll be seeing a ‘Windows 9, Enterprise Edition’, which features a desktop and is able to run unsigned code, but at a much higher price. OSX could well do the same, as it’s consumer version continues to morph into ‘iOS X’…
Fee To Pay
So with consoles dying, and the PC under threat, we look to mobile devices… A few years back, they were an exciting new world for game developers. Then there was the ‘race to the bottom’, and an increasing struggle to make money from £0.69 games. Then ‘free’ was the new £0.69, and everything got really ugly.
This year has been about the battle between ‘nice F2P’, and ‘evil, exploitative F2P’. And sadly, in this epic battle of good vs. evil, the good guys didn’t stand a chance. The top grossing iOS chart has been dominated by exploitative F2P games, those that suck you in then force you to pay and pay and pay for consumable items – pay to skip excessive grinds/delays, pay to win battles, pay to gain power… Games that have ‘buy more shite!’ buttons plastered across their UI at all times. Games that aim to out-Zynga Zynga. Games where the ‘money mechanics’ take precendence over gameplay mechanics.
‘Nice F2P’ has been attempted – just selling cosmetic items, permanant upgrades, or real content. But sadly, it rarely seems to succeed. There’s been a few notable failures during the year, particularly by indies trying to go F2P but be nice to their customers, with no nasty consumables or manipulative psychological trickery. Jetpack Joyride was one big success which did it nicely, and a memorable feature that differentiated it from ‘bad F2P’ games was that it didn’t get greedy and offer £69.99 packs of coins, but it stopped at something like £12.99. And most of the upgrades and accessories are permanant, it doesn’t pressure you into buying consumable items.
But there’s not many examples of ‘Nice F2P’ succeeding. F2P supporters will continue to point out League of Legends and TF2 as huge examples of if working, even outside of mobile. But it’s always those two same examples, whoever you talk to! – To me, that’s like saying ‘Subscription MMOs are the next big thing, look at, erm, WoW!’
Whilst mobile has been tough for a few years now, it’s seemed like a particularly tough year for PC indie devs. We’ve had Valve giving ‘lesser indies’ the middle finger in the form of Greenlight, and we’ve had a relentless barrage of Indie Bundles, reducing the value of PC indie titles to maybe £0.50 or so each… We’ve also seen the continued rise of the ‘super-indie’/'celebrity developer’ – successful developers who wield immeasurable power, and whom can make or break a ‘lesser indie’ in a single tweet…
Bundles. I just can’t see them as a good thing. Humble Bundle was a great idea to begin with, especially with the charity aspect. But ever since they recieved 4.7mil in venture capital, I’ve been a skeptic. Bundlers are middlemen and gatekeepers. The last thing that indies need are more middlemen and gatekeepers. Humble Bundle in particular seems to set rather high barriers to entry, too – usually requiring games to be on Mac and Linux as well as Windows. And since Humble succeeded, there’s been endless attempts by others to create competing bundles – usually with very limited success for all involved. But it’s created an attitude of ‘I’ll wait for it to be bundled’ amongst gamers, as well as reducing the percieved value of indie games, which is rather unhealthy.
Greenlight. Well, there’s been plenty of rants about this, particularly with the $100 fee added simply for posting a title on Greenlight. In theory, it was supposed to be a good thing, a more transparent way for indies to attempt to get on to Steam. But in practice, it’s the graveyard of Steam rejects. If the game is good enough (or more importantly, by a suitably well-known developer), it simply gets to bypass Greenlight. It’s very clearly a 2-tier system, just look at recent indie releases in the Steam client. Greenlight is mostly just a holding area for games that Valve can’t be arsed reviewing. Ok, there’s been a couple of successes. Out of maybe 1000 games on Greenlight, a whole 6 have made it on to Steam. Congratulations to Sos, whose McPixel was the first greenlit game to arrive on Steam!
But it’s not all bad!
Whilst it’s seemed like a shit year for the business side of game development, when it comes to actually making games, things just keep getting better. Hardware keeps getting faster, and tools and middleware are constantly improving, and it’s getting easier every day to create games!
The ‘death of Flash’ was massively exaggerated, and we now have Stage3D as an option to bring higher-performance Flash games to the web, as well as FlasCC for C++ to Flash porting possibilities. HTML5 is slowly maturing, too. And Unity has become massively popular. Myself, I’ve continued to use Marmalade, which lets me develop for iOS in C++/Visual Studio, without a Mac, and also build for Android with minimal hassle.
Indies have continued to create some awesome games, a couple of my favourites of the year being Thomas Was Alone and Super Hexagon, with Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia also being a very memorable interactive experience. I’ve really not spent a whole lot of time playing games this year. When I’ve not been making games, I’ve spent more time messing with RC helis/quadcopters, and drinking beer! I need to make more time for actually playing games next year – I’ve got a growing collection of unplayed and barely-played games in Steam, and there’s a few really great XBLA games that I’ve not got around to playing yet, too…
Game Jams have been increasingly popular, too, with thousands of games made during Ludum Dare contests alone, and around 2000 developers signed up for next year’s ‘One Game A Month’ event! I was a bit lazy this year, and didn’t complete any Ludum Dare games, something which I hope to correct in 2013!
And personally, I’ve released two games this year – Little Acorns (iOS+WP7) came out back in February, and then Skyriders in October (iOS+Android). Whilst I haven’t really earned enough from these to keep doing full-time indie development long-term, I’m glad that I’ve given it a try, and actually got two games out!