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Gone, but not forgotten: The biggest gaming trends of 2012, and the impact they will have on the years to come

Now that 2012 has become yet another victim of the oppressive march of time, we can look back on the year as a whole and employ a bit of hindsight to differentiate those things that will have a lasting impact on the gaming industry from those that were just momentary fads that faded away, or perhaps were just ahead of their time – cloud gaming, for example.

It was an important year in gaming, and it may take a few more cycles around the sun to truly understand its impact. Some trends this past year saw a major spike and should continue to influence the industry for years to come, while others could be the harbinger of the end for others. Time will tell.

But for now there are certain trends that are obvious, trends that will color the gaming industry at least through the next year and likely for years to come. Here’s a look back at 2012 and the major trends that will have a lasting impact on the industry.  

The Rise of Kickstarter

Kickstarter was not the first crowd funding platform, nor did it debut last year, but in 2012 the word “kickstarter” came to be synonymous with all crowd funded projects in tech – just as tissues will forever be genericized as Kleenex, even if they aren’t made by the Kleenex brand. This new method of funding wasn’t limited to gaming by any means, but the gaming industry may be forever changed by it if this last year is any indication. 

In 2012, Kickstarter exploded in the gaming scene and became a legitimate source of funding for relatively big titles being created outside of the established studio system. You won’t see the next Call of Duty title being funded by the crowds anytime soon, but the service did provide some intriguing properties. It also became a new source of financing for developers not interested in the current studio system, developers like the legendary,  former LucasArts designer Tim Schafer and his upcoming Double Fine Adventures which raised over $1 million in 24 hours, as well as Wing Commander creator, Chris Roberts, who returns to gaming with Star Citizen, the most successful Kickstarter game funding campaign to date, with over $6 million donated by backers. It gives those developers freedom and creative control that they would not receive otherwise, and it also gives them a decent budget to work with. 

But the Kickstarter avenue isn’t just for independent developments. Until Star Citizen came along, the best funded game honors belonged to Project Eternity, which is being developed by Obsidian Entertainment. The Fallout: New Vegas developer felt that the type of game they wanted to make wouldn’t be well received by publishers, so it went to Kickstarter for help, and that isn’t an uncommon story. 

Of the 10 best-funded Kickstarter projects, seven are directly related to gaming. All 10, however, were funded in 2012. The Kickstarter trend exploded last year, and the results will be felt throughout 2013 and on. There has already been a good deal of success from Kickstarter-funded projects, but 2012 saw a higher level of expectation and money. Many of those projects will be released in 2013, and assuming they are at least moderately successful, there is no reason to think this trend won’t continue and grow.

The Kickstarter phenomena even gave birth to a new console of sorts, with the Android-based console, Ouya, due out later this year. Maybe it will succeed, maybe it won’t. But it is a direct result of Kickstarter, and a look at the way that crowd-funding is likely to continue to influence gaming in the years to come.   

The Growth of Mobile Gaming

This topic has been so well covered, it almost seems too obvious a choice, but the success of mobile gaming over the last year is still worth a mention. Thanks to the rise of smartphone and tablet technology, mobile gaming became a major factor in the gaming industry in 2012.

The numbers are still coming in, but by Q1 there were reportedly over 100 million mobile gamers in the US alone, which would be a 34-percent increase based against Q1 of 2011 – and mobile gaming simply grew from there.

Regardless of what the final numbers end up looking like, mobile gaming was the one sector of the gaming industry that actually grew in 2012. Mobile gaming is like to plateau at some point – and that could happen as soon as this year – but the expansion has proven mobile gaming to be a thriving and legitimate sector. Because of that, even the developers that are traditionally slow to embrace change are likely going to be looking for ways into the mobile gaming side of things. Expect to see even more franchise games make the jump to mobile in the coming year.  

The success of mobile gaming in 2012 is also likely to shift the way that gaming is seen in 2013 and beyond. It is no longer just the providence of the hardcore gaming fans, locked into their console or desktop gaming rigs for hours. Instead the industry is expanding to become more encompassing. And as smartphone and tablet technology continues to improve, the mobile gaming market will become more competitive, which means we can expect better games. It could also once and for all help to end the negative stereotype of the traditional gamer, since the new average gamer is a sizable chunk of the population.

The Changing Business Model and The Legitimization of Digital Downloads

The recent recession was a watershed moment for the world, and the tech and gaming industry were no exception. Industries were shattered, and most (if not all) were at least forced to re-examine the way that they did business. There is no “getting back to normal”, and manufacturers and developers that work exclusively with products that can be labeled as “luxury items” were forced to change, and, in many cases, downsize as their former customers re-prioritized their budgets. 

During a recession, entertainment industries traditionally do fairly well as people are happy for a brief respite from the realities of the economic hardships they face. That proved to be true for movies and music, plus TV viewing figures were as solid as ever, but the gaming industry wasn’t quite so fortunate.

That makes sense though, since the gaming industry is inherently more expensive than paying for a movie or an album. A CD or a movie ticket cost between $10 and $15 dollars generally, while a new game runs around $60. Buying an individual song is even cheaper, while purchasing an add-on for a game can start at $10 and go all the way up to equal the original package. The pricing model is completely different, which left gaming far more vulnerable than film or music.

Developers and publishers realized this and have been ramping up their presence beyond the confines of traditional releases. That has led to an explosion of digitally distributed content, and this year some of it has even surpassed in quality what you can find on store shelves. There is also the growing free-to-play genre highlighted by titles like League of Legends and PlanetSide 2, but 2013 is more likely going to be influenced by free-to-play than 2012 was. 

This has been a long time coming, of course. The Xbox Live market place was designed for this, as was the PlayStation Network, and other services that don’t rely on physical media – like Steam – have all been geared towards this shift. But it is only really in 2012 where things began to pay off in a big way, both financially and critically.

This year saw the digital release of games like Journey and The Walking Dead, as well as countless others. It legitimized the delivery method and showed gamers that you could have exceptionally good games at a lower price point, and that the consistency of good releases available digitally was only going to get better.

It also opened up gaming a bit in terms of creativity. With the budget of AAA games skyrocketing, developers are less likely to take risks on unproven properties and gameplay. That isn’t the case for digital downloads. Indie developers now have a greater chance than ever before to excel, and larger teams can use the digital distribution scene as a test ground, both for their own riskier ideas, and to find new talent without having to look too hard. 2012 also saw a huge increase in digital add-ons, including new DLC for games, as well as bonuses for buying the game new at a particular spot. Expect that to increase even more in the next year, and the years coming.

The final numbers of money spent on digital content aren’t in yet, but it will be significant. For developers, it is a new business model to explore, but for gamers it is a new way to think about where and how to get their games, all while saving a bit of money.

The Next War Begins

If you have been following the gaming scene, then it’s impossible to not know about Nintendo’s new console, the Wii U. It is a divisive console among gamers, underpowered and featuring a hard-to-explain new controller as its centerpiece. Yet, the console sold out immediately and demand remains high.

But the system itself is just a small part of what it signifies. The Wii U marks the first step towards the next generation of consoles, and with it the next generation of gaming. This generation of consoles lasted longer than anyone thought it would, with the Xbox 360 celebrating its eighth anniversary this year and the PS3 just a year behind it. And yet, despite the age, there aren’t many clamoring for the next wave of gaming tech, at least not in the same way that gamers used to get excited for new hardware.

The systems are advanced enough at this point to offer upgrades in software, which has made them feel fresh. That will likely carry over to the next Xbox and PlayStation, which means the next gen may be in place for several years to come, and the five year cycles will officially be a thing of the past. That all began with the Wii U.

Even if Microsoft and Sony hold off on releasing new hardware (and Microsoft almost certainly won’t), the gauntlet has been thrown down, and gamers are poised for yet another shift. Microsoft and Sony will both be closely analyzing the release of the Wii U – both its triumphs and failures – throughout 2012.

The Wii U was the start, and it joined the handheld PS Vita, which was also released last year. The Nintendo 3DS was released in 2011, but it wasn’t until 2012 that it really began to gain momentum. Even though it will probably be 2013 that is remembered as the beginning of the next great hardware war, its roots were firmly set in 2012.

The Year of the App

Part of the reason for the delay in releasing new hardware (besides the obvious reasons like cost), is that there is still plenty of potential in the current gen’s hardware, specifically the Xbox 360 and PS3. Both Microsoft and Sony realized that hardware was only one part of the potential of their gaming systems, and so in 2012 we saw a massive influx of software that made the gaming systems into far more than they ever were before.

This wasn’t something that started in 2012, but last year was when apps on the consoles went from being an interesting bonus to a focus of the system. Microsoft especially has embraced this, and the 360 in many ways became a prototype for the Windows 8 operating system, which is heavily integrated with downloadable apps.

Sony has been a little slower to embrace the app revolution, but with the 360 now capable of playing HBO content, the new ESPN app that features “Monday Night Football” (among other programming), and the ability to search and find almost any media content online to rent or buy, the next generation of consoles will certainly follow suit and make this a staple of each systems’ capabilities. Nintendo is well aware of this, and not only offers apps, but native programs that are designed to combine them all and make it easier to use.

From the start of this cycle of consoles, the manufacturers have claimed that their systems are more than just gaming consoles, they are home entertainment devices that anyone could enjoy. Turns out they were right, and the incredible influx of new apps introduced in 2012 – each providing their own libraries full of content – proved that.

Streaming Games and the Emergence of Pro Gaming

Pro gaming is nothing new – just ask the Koreans, who are so far ahead of us on that front that they even have their own match-fixing scandals to go along with the major gambling revenues based on gaming competitions. This last year saw a spike in American pro gaming, though, thanks to several online platforms like Twitch, which not only made it easy to stream any game, but is also being incorporated into some PC titles to make it as easy as touching a button.

With the rise of streaming game content being generated by users came the inevitable monetization of that. Pro gaming is still in its infancy, but there is no question as to whether or not there is an audience for it. With millions tuning in to watch other people play games online for fun, the next obvious step is to watch others play games with some stakes on the line.

It might be years before pro gaming becomes a truly legitimate pastime, but the success of streaming games proved that it can be done from a tech point-of-view, and there is an audience waiting to embrace it. Somewhere out there right now there are several very smart, and very motivated people working on ideas to expand pro gaming into the mainstream. It may take time, but 2012 showed it can be done.