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2012: The year intelligent old-school gaming struck back

Think about that. A slow, methodical, quiet, understated example of the most apparently dead of genres is our game of the year. And the thing is, as outstanding a work as TWD is, that decision was ultimately a damn hard one to make. Q4 of 2012 has just been that good for console gaming. And every one of its best games, to some degree or another, represents the rejuvenation of a gameplay conceit all too often now viewed as the preserve of the past, the PC, or both.

Meanwhile, some expected sure-fire hits of console gaming’s current mainstream ethos have fallen on their arses. Most notably Medal of Honor: Warfighter, which should have had everything going for it. It was a modern military first-person shooter from EA, with a marketing push to match. It used showboating fancy new graphics technology by way of DICE’s Frostbite 2 Engine. It was a sequel to a well-known franchise. But it tanked. Yes, releasing just before this year's Call of Duty may have nailed its coffin lid shut, but on paper MOH was the blueprint for mainstream success and should have put up a better fight. Megaton competition aside, the fact remains that EA had certain business expectations for the game on its own terms, and it likely fell short of those.

Traditional triple-A games seem to have been finding it harder to make the kind of commercial dent that justifies their costs in 2012. For a couple of years, in fact. Just look at what's just happened to poor old THQ, even after its pledge to cater primarily to the core gamer.

Meanwhile, a turn-based strategy game smashed its way into the UK all-formats chart at number 7. That chart doesn’t even include digital downloads, where the majority of XCOM’s considerable PC sales would no doubt originate.

Obviously, from my notoriously beard-strokey perspective, this phenomenon is brilliant. But what’s causing it? My guess would be that a perfect storm of factors is kicking in right now. Firstly, the length of this console generation so far means that we’re way past the point at which developers traditionally hit the state of technical mastery over the available hardware, allowing ideas to overtake logistical concerns. With all the technical wrangling done, game design can become more freely creative.

That explains games like Dishonored being pitched, as well as technically impressive revisions of ambitious old formulas like Hitman. But someone has to be buying this stuff to make it worth the risk. And that’s where the length of this generation comes into play in a slightly different way. You see seven years in, and still with no next-gen revolution in sight, we’re way off the usual narrative of hardware cycling now. And gamers seem to be getting bored.

Sales are down across the board. And while games that would probably have been impressive enough a few years ago are now old hat on release (hello again, MOH), I reckon there's more to it than that. Without the excitement of shiny new machines, it's entirely feasible that the less committed, more fad-driven gamers are falling by the wayside. Nintendo has admitted this to be a problem when dealing with the casual market, but I suspect everyone is suffering as a result now. Increasingly, publishers are being left with the most core of core gamers to sell to. And those guys have different standards.

This generation of hardcore, game-savvy players has been exposed to current-gen game standards for so damn long that I suspect it now craves evolution rather fiercely. Although I'm loathe to use internet comments as a yardstick for anything of weight, you only need to look at the number of engaged, purchase-ready voices crying out for originality to realise what the enthusiasts are after. Concurrently, the steady trickle of more interesting, smaller games via XBLA and PSN has very probably had a slowly building but very serious effect on mainstream perceptions of gaming over the last few years, eroding the blinkers and opening eyes to more thoughtful, off-kilter possibilities.

A game like Braid or Journey even existing on consoles without those download services would have been unthinkable, but with those frameworks in place such games have not only happened, but have managed to be hits. And when games like that do well on consoles, tastes are bound to start changing on the whole.

And it seems they have. And in turn, long-standing developers of unfashionable ideas are finding a spotlight again. The next step? The ideal scenario is a great big feedback loop, leading to healthier gaming appetites being satiated with healthier creative ideas for many years to come. Though there’s also every chance that if next-gen hits next year, we’ll just drop straight back into the graphics-as-priority arms-race and have to start the process all over again on new hardware.

Obviously that would be a damn tragedy. So here’s hoping, eh?

You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that kid’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it.

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18 comments

  • jackthemenace - January 7, 2013 9:58 a.m.

    It's great to see that smarter, more thought-provoking games are taking off, but all that amounts to nothing if no-one plays them, and unfortunately, as far as the gamers I know go, most of them would never play some of the more mature, intelligent titles unless they were entires in already existing series. Like, if The Walking Dead, even if it was exactly the same game, was called something different, most of the gamers I know would have dismissed it instantly.
  • D0CCON - January 2, 2013 5:40 p.m.

    It feels weird having this article come up after 2011, which remains my favorite year of titles yet.
  • AlbVega - December 31, 2012 1:48 p.m.

    Any person who disliked AC3 -one of the greatest revenge tales in gaming, ever- is obviously an idiot. Also, you keep talking about "storytelling" in The Walking Dead, which is ridiculous when you compare it to AC3's tale of revenge, honor and hope. So, shut up.
  • RebornKusabi - December 31, 2012 4:57 p.m.

    I dislike Assassin's Creed 3 for a lot of reasons and it sure isn't storytelling problems only. Shitty controls, terrible characters, annoying game design all wrapped up in a game containing very little assassinations in ASSASSIN'S Creed 3. So no, we won't shut up.
  • christian-shaffer - December 31, 2012 5:40 p.m.

    Yes. Obviously, anyone that doesn't agree with your opinion is obviously an idiot. Everyone but me is such a fool. Bit of a narcissist are we?
  • winner2 - December 31, 2012 9:41 p.m.

    Are you trolling? Because last I checked AC3 was shit. The most fun you could have in that game was climbing the trees.
  • pl4y4h - December 31, 2012 11:56 p.m.

    I've said it once and I'll say it again, AC 3 had a lot of problems
  • ranivus - January 1, 2013 12:36 p.m.

    Wow dude you almost sound like you know what you're saying but in reality and sadly, you don't. Putting things in quotes and referencing the 6th game in an annoying series that will never end as a great story just makes me sad about humanity and how ignorant they really are. Bravo sir, bravo.
  • ZeeCaptain - January 1, 2013 3:27 p.m.

    Well yea it was one of the best games of 2012 story wise, but the game play felt tired, they haven't been able to fix that since ACII, that's why they introduced the menu training and mission giving in Brotherhood, that's why they introduced tower defense in Revelations, and that's why they introduced the sailing mechanics in ACIII, they made a great game in ACII but after another three games that play the same and add one new gimmick after the other it's pretty obvious they know that they can't find the secret to eternal youth for this series, so if they do forge ahead with a game where Desmond is in the future killing the Templar then I don't know what to expect maybe a Tetris mini game to solve puzzles or a Bejeweled Blitz where they have little heads of Templars.
  • BottleBank - January 3, 2013 3:03 a.m.

    Some people are easily pleased i guess...
  • BottleBank - January 3, 2013 3:04 a.m.

    ...and i don't mean David Houghton
  • wantsumcandi-psn-id - January 10, 2013 5:15 a.m.

    Any person who disliked AC3? I really don't like the AC series, so I guess I'm an idiot, because I have my own opinion. I always thought people who used hyphens, instead of commas, to separate phrases we're idiots. (look above)
  • taokaka - December 31, 2012 11:55 a.m.

    I'm going to have to disagree a bit with the article, it comes of as far too one sided in favour of the somehow more "intelligent" games with gameplay concepts that were created a while ago and died temporarily due to action games that were new and innovative for their time. You keep using medal of honor as your benchmark for modern game design and give games who have roots in old school games as much chance as possible. You didn't mention games like borderlands 2, halo 4 and farcry 3 which have amazed critics and been commercial successes due to their brilliant takes on the FPS. Mass effect 3 and max payne 3 have done exactly the same with third person shooters. In terms of sales XCOM didn't even make it into the top 100 games sold this year globally while the ps3 version of medal of mediocrity is at 95, the download sales may totally change that but we'll never know (source: http://www.vgchartz.com/yearly/2012/Global/ ). Overall I just think the simplest way of putting it is the market changes and companies do whatever to differentiate their products whether it be look backwards for ideas or forwards to innovate, or in some cases make their product as bland and mainstream as possible and what we really need is the variety these games offer to keep us interested. Sorry for the long wall of text and I hope this makes sense to you as I am really tired at the moment.
  • Dauthi693 - December 31, 2012 2:33 p.m.

    I agree with taokaka the articles points aren't balanced but i agree with the point this article is making, also i think your example of borderlands 2 for FPS sucks as it felt to me like to succeed in spite of being an FPS not because of it. That said Games like Fez, Mark of the Ninja, Natural Selection 2, The Walking Dead, FTL, Journey, Hotline Miami, Spelunky, Asura's Wrath Binding of Isaac and Dishonored Show he has a point about intelligent design and/or the implementation of seemingly archaic old school mechanics. Then games like Persona 4 Golden, Planetside 2 and Tribes and X-Com and Betas for Mech Warrior Online and Hawken show that in this age of annual franchises old can just as easily be the new new.
  • Edias - December 31, 2012 11:35 a.m.

    The year started off relatively slow, but it definitely picked up later on. 2013 is looking to be a pretty solid year as well.
  • Mooshon - December 31, 2012 7:37 a.m.

    Great article Dave. Going to be really exciting to see what pans out. Next gen arms race of RAM and vid cards will inevitably generate a huge round of AAA recycling. Saying that, possible digi distribution revolution could mean cheaper dev and rise of indie style experimentation. Fingers crossed. Happy NY
  • Clovin64 - December 31, 2012 4:37 a.m.

    Nice to see the more inventive games getting more of a mainstream audience nowadays. That said, most of my gamer friends were still all OMG BLACK OPS 2 this year, but still...
  • bass88 - December 31, 2012 10 a.m.

    I'm currently working at a checkout of a major shopping chain and many are buying the games Mr. Houghton has listed. Since I'm interested in games I engage in conversation with them and they steer the conversation to COD. They say they got it for Christmas but they think it's a pile of wank. I ask them if there's something majorally different from the other series entries and they say there isn't really but they're just tired of it and want something different. So, maybe there is hope after all.

Showing 1-18 of 18 comments

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