Last year was an odd one for video games trends, as Microsoft and Sony wound down their Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 operations in anticipation of launching new machines in 2013. While the big players backed off a little, however, the games market itself was evolving rapidly.
One of the more telling directions of 2012 was the emergence of Kickstarter as a funding option for developers. Kickstarter allows anyone to put together a pitch, stick it on the internet and ask for money to transfer an idea from whiteboard to product. Double Fine, led by well known adventure game creator Tim Schafer, started the "revolution" by drawing $3.3 million for an unnamed point-and-click game, following which many developers took their ideas direct to the public. So rapidly has Kickstarter matured as a tool in games creation that we've already seen moaning about how it's now being used to fund larger games which probably should have got a publisher deal, potentially shifting attention away from smaller, younger teams in greater need of a break. Whatever your view, there's no question: as far as games are concerned, Kickstarter is here to stay.
Why has Kickstarter become so popular so quickly? It's largely thanks to another trend we saw in 2012, namely that of the "double-A squeeze". As the business model surrounding selling discs in shops inexorably collapses, publishers are becoming ultra-conservative in the products they greenlight as they transition from physical media to streaming and downloads. While this is forcing indies to move to alternative methods of funding, for the bigger publishers it's either blockbuster or, simply, bust. Triple-A games such as Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto are increasingly becoming the only products to really make sense as traditionally published games, and "double-A" is being mercilessly killed off on disc. Long-standing publisher THQ filed for bankruptcy protection in December, following years of trying, and mainly failing, to create its own mega-hit. The giant, premium games for which you pay £40 on a disc aren't going away, but 1 million sales isn't enough any more: you need at least 3 million, and preferably twice that. Saints Row 3 reached 5.5 million people in total, but it was too late.
Double-A hasn't vanished, thankfully. The million-ish sellers squeezed out of the traditional model have had a cheery habit of appearing online, and the continuing shift to digital downloads was one of 2012's strongest trends, at least on PC. Steam boss Gabe Newell checked in on billionaire's row over the summer, and publishers EA and Ubisoft both launched sturdy, if relatively microscopically endowed substitutes - Origin and Uplay - before the end of the year.
And it's with Steam and owner Valve that we get a sense of the themes likely to dominate gaming in 2013. There's strong talk of Valve readying its own hardware, a "Steambox," for announcement at Los Angelian trade event E3 next year, which is also sure to host showcases of the next Xbox and PlayStation consoles.
Wii U, Nintendo's latest effort, launched towards the end of 2012, and makes a strong point of what's to come next by including a touch-screen on the controller. This year will be ruled by the concepts of asynchronous play - whether it be through controller, smartphone or tablet synched to the TV or monitor - and potentially the Tsar Bomba news that Valve is about to enter the main industry's A-game. If that does happen, the games console business, and specifically its reliance of discs and brick-and-mortar retail, could be altered for good.
Whatever happens with Steambox, though, it's going to be an explosive year in video gaming. Watch for the reveals of the new PlayStation and Xbox machines in May and June.