The Year That Wasn't

By Jonathan Barnes, 2 years ago
Like many of you, I took a good bit of time reflecting on the Xbox 360 games of 2013 before sitting down to vote in our Game of the Year poll. More than that, as one of the contributors to our Game of the Generation "TA Top Five" lists, I couldn't help but see 2013 as a down year for Xbox 360 games in comparison to years past. With that in mind, I decided to dig a bit deeper into 2013, or as I call it, "The Year That Wasn't."
GTA V May 2nd

With the great, big, huge, neon, flashing caveat that Metacritic isn't the be-all, end-all of video game quality, I decided to start there to see if my suspicions of a down year were even remotely on-point. For the purposes of this analysis, I decided to set a Metacritic Score of 90-100 as the bar for "excellence" in gaming. Let's see how many games* posted a score of at least 90 in each year of the generation:

* "games" also includes DLC expansions and experiences that were evaluated on Metacritic.

2005: 0
2006: 3
2007: 8
2008: 7
2009: 7
2010: 9
2011: 9
2012: 7

And let's see how many 2013 had:

Let's kick things down a small notch and go with a baseline of 80-100 just to see how many games of note were in that department.

2005: 9
2006: 29
2007: 40
2008: 46
2009: 53
2010: 60
2011: 64
2012: 64

And for 2013?

With statistics like that, it seems that there's a bit of data to back up the assertion that 2013 was indeed a "down year" for the Xbox 360 in terms of game quality and possibly "the worst" since the '05-'06 launch window. Rather than dwell on that, let's take a moment to think about the "why".

First and foremost, I'll address the 800 pound gorilla in the room: New consoles were coming. Over the past few years, as this console generation got longer in the tooth, many of the "best" versions of games began appearing on PC, where devs could push technical requirements a bit further, have greater content quality and control, and make games perform that much better. Furthermore, many developers eschewed releasing games this year in order to focus on their "next-gen" titles (or outsourcing current-gen development), many of which could be hitting later this year or next. The successful launches of both the PS4 and Xbox One should also serve as a harbinger of big things and big games in the coming months/years. Sensing this shift, Microsoft has even made a See What's Coming! video to remind gamers that good things are in the pipeline.

That primary factor can easily make 2013 seem like a small bump in the road of quality as this (past) console generation winds down.
Dead April 9th

The more "disturbing" trend (for console gamers) is what is happening in the PC/Indie world.

If one were to take a look at the "top" games lists from critics and outlets that cover the broad range of game platforms, you'll probably find at least one of the following titles: Papers, Please, Gone Home, and The Stanley Parable. You'll probably also see some of the more artsy-critics placing these games near the top of their "Game of the Year" lists. Each of these games also shares a few things in common: smaller team, shorter experience, a single and cohesive thought, and (typically) a smaller price point.

There's no arguing the fact that console games are getting bigger and more expensive to produce, especially as we enter this newest generation. As they grow, developers are no doubt beginning to strain under the stress of expectations, both financial and critical, as well as pressure from publishers to pump out sequels to successful games. The end result is that many talented individuals and teams are leaving larger companies to form smaller ones and these smaller developers are putting out smaller, more personal and niche titles. By keeping their teams small, these new development houses can keep costs and expectations low and then release their games on an indie-friendly Steam platform that is conducive to smaller games and has fewer headaches and hoops than publishing on Xbox LIVE or the PlayStation Network. These games, made by AAA talent and unencumbered by immense financial expectations, are finding their audiences and thriving. In short, it's smart business and smart art.
Gone Home

But what of us console-only gamers?

A handful of these smaller developers may attempt to port these games over to consoles, but most won't because of the increased time and money requirements and platform stipulations. While Microsoft and Sony have taken steps to make their consoles more "Indie-Friendly", there are still control measures in place that could be a hindrance to these smaller teams and console-only gamers may never get to see any of these excellent titles.

AAA titles on consoles aren't going anywhere, the successful launches of the PS4 and Xbox One show that there's still an appetite for console gaming and both Microsoft and Sony have invested heavily in new development, so we can all rest easy on that front. A good sign for indies is just how hard both platform holders seem to be working to cater to the needs of these smaller developers. While the Xbox LIVE Arcade may be dead on the Xbox One, Microsoft and Sony have clearly shown that they're hungry to bring smaller, indie titles to their platforms. What remains to be seen, however, is just how well received those titles will be to a console audience. One of the big benefits of the Steam platform is that there's a greater flexibility in pricing, so smaller titles can be purchased for a minimal investment and word of mouth can spread. There's also the new trend of early access games, which give gamers the ability to play "unfinished" games, enjoy them, and provide feedback to development teams before the game's final release. With Microsoft and Sony holding the pricing keys and enforcing quality control standards that might prevent early access, it's tough to tell how much flexibility will be afforded to smaller titles and what kind of audience they'll find.

There's little debate that 2013 was a "down" year for console gamers. Like every year there were high points (Grand Theft Auto V and BioShock Infinite (Xbox 360) were big multiplatform titles while the PS3 had The Last of Us), but these big highs were fewer and farther between than previous years. As we march forward into this new generation, let's hope the quality of games rebounds and we see more diversity not only in game type, but also size, price, and theme.
Jonathan Barnes
Written by Jonathan Barnes
Jonathan has been a news/views contributor since 2010. When he's not writing reviews, features, and opinion pieces, he spends his days working as an informal science educator and his nights as an international man of mystery.