2011 may well go down in gaming history as the first year in which the gaming community told the industry that it must change. It told Nintendo that handheld gaming is moving towards phones, Bioware that it will not accept hastily made money grabs - even from them - and it showed the world that the reports of the death of PC gaming were 'greatly exaggerated'.
More than ever before, gamers voiced their opinions in forums, on social sites and above all on Metacritic. It is there that opinions were transformed from background chatter into cold, hard user scores that showed disappointment, dismay and sometimes even anger. Those same user scores often revealed significant gaps between the opinions of the gaming press and consumers. Several major releases received generally favorable scores from reviewers only to be shot down by gamers unhappy with their purchase. For example, the press awarded Modern Warfare 3 with a generous 89/100 but users didn’t deem it worth more than a meager 32/100, commenting negatively about its tired engine and absolute lack of innovation. Similarly, Dragon Age 2 garnered a 82/100 score from reviewers while thousands of disappointed users complained about rehashed environments, lack of depth and the departure from its RPG roots and ultimately scored the game a 42/100. Despite the fact that both games failed to deliver a satisfactory experience, commercially they did just fine and it remains to be seen if consumers will vote with their wallets for their sequels.
Publishers are taking a long hard look at the traditional business models of packaging, shipping and then selling games at retail. Sales through PSN, Xbox Live and Steam have seen considerable growth and there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that digital distribution is the future, though retail will likely play an important role for years to come. In the mean time, publishers experiment with DLC, free to play MMO’s and games on Facebook, hoping to hitch a ride on the micropayment wave and discover new ways to earn a buck. The next few years will reveal whether or not the seemingly greener pastures where these experiments take place are really all that green or perhaps more of a yellow-ish brown.
The green of money, as always, will be the deciding factor in where the industry is heading. There’s nothing wrong with that - it enables great games to be produced - but it is obvious that gamers are unhappy with how some of their favorite franchises have been treated recently. There is a move towards making games more accessible (or *shudder* ‘streamlined’) in order to draw from a wider audience. The results aren’t always appreciated by core gamers, alienating them as a result. But while the larger publishers will go where they think the most money is, smaller publishers are stepping in to fill the gap, developing core-market games on smaller budgets. For them, the core pastures are green enough.
For better or worse, the industry as a whole is changing; it must, to survive. But the direction it chooses to take is not yet set in stone. Developers, producers and publishers alike need to take a long hard look in the mirror and decide if they like themselves and where they are leading the industry.
On a brighter note, we can look back at a great gaming year and a number of 2011’s releases are pointing the industry in the right direction. The Deus Ex franchise was successfully resurrected, something many a fan hoped for but few dared believe could be done. Perhaps this success has paved the way for Syndicate and Xcom to follow in 2012. And while RPG fans may have had their hearts trampled on early in the year, they rejoiced at the release of The Witcher 2 and Skyrim. Taking years to develop these releases, both CD Project and Bethesda opted for the ‘slow buck’ and proved that the time and effort was well-spent; these games will be going down in history as some of the best RPGs ever made. Other gems such as The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and Batman: Arkham City captivated gamers imaginations, further strengthening the point that core games are still at the heart of the industry. And with a number of ‘slow buck’ titles such as Grand Theft Auto V, Max Payne 3 and Bioshock Infinite coming up, 2012’s release list is looking healthy and brimming of entertainment value.