Polygon looks back at some of the people who made gaming news in the past year, for better or for worse.
Festooned with the launches of two major consoles from Sony and Microsoft, 2013 was always going to be a memorable year for gaming. But it wasn't just the machinations of massive corporations that shaped the last 12 months.
Much of the news last year was drafted on social media, around creative individuals who have managed to make wondrous things that have become popular by force of public will, rather than via marketing might.
Change has also been wrought by diversity movements that have found a way to forcefully express themselves and so garner wide support for important issues, previously dismissed wrongly or maliciously by those wielding power over communication channels, as niche.
As in all years, there were also unique examples of triumphant creation and exertion as well as of woeful inadequacy and miscalculation. And the ever-present issue of violence was once again part of our landscape.
And so 2013 isn't just the story of shiny new consoles, it's also about a guy on top of the world, a kid in a Batman suit, a game that made people cry and some that made them furious. It's about how equality and dignity count in gaming too, as do politeness and compassion.
Polygon has attempted to condense this tale and tell the story of games news in 2013 through 50 people who made the news, spanning seven themes.
When Microsoft senior vice president YUSUF MEHDI took to a Redmond stage in May, to unveil Xbox One, he represented the company's deeply held aspirations to build a great totem of all things Microsoft, from Bing to Windows, from Surface to Xbox. It was he, very much a company man, who showed us the big Xbox One play that would make its console an entertainment hub, bound to both the cable box and to Kinect. Yet, six months later, when Mehdi proclaimed the success of Xbox One's launch, the original vision had changed and been modified. Many questions still remain about how far the big vision suits a consumer need, and how far it suits a corporation's strategic desire to extend its power and unify its activities under the gaming rubric.
If Microsoft can be said to be an organization in need of a mission, the troubles that ail Sony are more immediate. Even under the capable aegis of PlayStation's own Kaz Hirai, the once mighty company badly needs a hit. PlayStation 4 enjoyed a much less confusing year than its rival, mostly because it stuck to a simpler premise, one that was partly formulated by the much-traveled MARK CERNY (below), who built the console's architecture around the desires of its congregation.
Cerny lacks the bland auto-blah features of many of Sony's talking heads and therein manages to convey a sense of authenticity, when he speaks of the company's hot desire to listen to gamers and to game developers before formulating grand plans. Never before have we seen Sony in quite such an agreeable frame. It's a shame his launch game Knack failed to spark much excitement, but his work in genuinely moving PlayStation 4 beyond the realm of providing better looking graphics and a deeper social overlay is laudable.
Nintendo's 2013 was altogether less inspiring. Its function in 2013 was not so much the acquisition of success, as the avoidance of failure, and in precious little measure did the company succeed. Wii U was launched in 2012 and, failing to make much of an impression, company chief SATORU IWATA pledged to turn around its fortunes with great games and a welcomed price drop. There were great games, but the effort was all, alas, far too few and far too late. Wii U looks every bit like a machine with a grim future. The introduction of 2DS, a riff on its successful handheld 3DS, bolstered by the arrival of Animal Crossing: New Leaf and Pokemon X / Y, shows that Nintendo is still capable of surprises. But this is a company that needs to make some serious recalculations in the year ahead.
All three of the standing console kings are in a constant state of peril. The long-anticipated announcement of Steam Machine, a living room device based on Valve boss GABE NEWELL's beloved SteamOS, can only add to their anxiety. The company also announced a cool-looking controller demonstrating that there is room for innovation in hardware design, and that the reiterative, self-serving strategies of established rivals are ripe for competitive exploitation.
Hardware has become a more mutable concept in the past year, with variously successful attempts to redefine the notion of a games console. Ouya, a low-cost open-platform Android device,was launched in the summer, along with much in the way of media boosting by company head JULIE UHRMAN (below). But the little device has failed to live up to its 2012 promise, when it was an early darling of Kickstarter enthusiasm.
Oculus Rift is a technology that might define 2014, giving users the most terrifyingly all-encompassing experience ever delivered, but, like all new technologies, it has its own issues to fix, like motion sickness and price (it is, when all is said and done, a high-end PC gaming peripheral). VR genius PALMER LUCKEY may be the smartest person working in games right now and, if he isn't, JOHN CARMACK is the likeliest contender, who finally quit id to work full time on the new machine, in which he believes so passionately. No doubt he will bring his customary verve to the Oculus Rift effort, but what his departure means for id is a more troubling question.
Likewise, there's JERI ELLSWORTH who could not persuade Valve to back her and Rick Johnson's notion of a holographic games machine and so have gone their own way to make a gadget that falls somewhere in between genuine article of astonishment and potential commercial flubb. The fact that such a thing as CastAR exists at all is evidence enough that games hardware is every bit as fascinating as it ever was.
The thing about hardware launches, and launches in general, is that they are prone to SNAFUs. If 2013 is any indicator, the size of the company involved is no protection against woeful inadequacy and unmitigated complacency leading to mortifying disaster.
Which leads us back to Microsoft, a company that suffered one of the most humiliating and stunning reversals in the history of gaming. Having attempted, against all reason, to stifle the trade in used games via a complicated and obtuse series of checks and online chicanery, Xbox's head DON MATTRICK was forced into a change of heart, followed by his own departure to Zynga, itself, deeply mired in a treacle of troubles.
Mattrick displayed a certain lack of touch throughout the proceedings, offering thoughtless comments about people without the necessary resources to be always online and backwards compatibility. There is a school of thought that insists Microsoft was acting with the best intentions and was shouted down by an uncomprehending mob, although others believe the company thought it was doing right by its commercial partners, who left it exposed when the going became heavy. We may never know the full story.
EA managed to screw up two major games launches in 2013 and, once again, online connectivity was the core issue. When SimCity launched in March, it was widely admired, which only added to the sense of outrage when so many people, forced to play the game online, found they were denied access to EA's disgracefully under-powered servers. EA Maxis head LUCY BRADSHAW tried to navigate a media blizzard, without making much headway.
It didn't help that EA, for various reasons, managed to once again win an award for least popular company in the United States. Soon after SimCity, Electronic Arts boss JOHN RICCITIELLO was out, replaced by EA Sports head Andrew Wilson. But even as the year came to an end, the company was mired in another botched launch controversy, this time centered in the cross-hairs of Battlefield 4.
Other big names found their Waterloo this year, or profited from someone else's defeat. Rhode Island Governor LINCOLN CHAFEE has become the face of the horror story that is the demise of 38 Studios, its bones were picked apart in 2013 as the man who some say forced its bankruptcy made much of public funds being used to boost ventures as inherently unstable as video game publishing.
THQ's boss BRIAN FARRELL was once a Wall Street darling, turning in quarter after quarter of growth and profitability on the back of Spongebob games. Those days are long gone, and he was largely mute as the defunct company was dismantled and sold off, yet another tale of corporate mismanagement and bad ideas.
YOICHI WADA (below, left) finally vacated his perch atop Square Enix, a company that seems to have occupied the 'publisher most likely to implode' slot previously occupied by THQ. There are still strong games coming from Square. The remake of Thief, due in 2014, is framed as a potential turning point, but is is also a tale of troubles in its own right.
Disney too, which closed LucasArts this year, was quick to disengage anything that didn't fit this year's corporate PowerPoint pitch, and so WARREN SPECTOR, one of the most respected game designers working today, found himself out of a job when Junction Point, developer of the Epic Mickey games, was closed in January.
Then there was DENIS DYACK, whose departure from his troubled company Silicon Knights came this year, along with an enormous Kickstarter failure of Precursor Games, and other upsetting scandals around that company.
There is one subset of perennial unpleasantness that merits its own section; the ongoing issue of violence in games, a subject that attracts more discussion and debate than any other. In the aftermath of the mass-murder of schoolchildren and their teachers in late 2012, by a deeply disturbed young man who liked to play platformers and RPGs, gaming's role in touching real world violence came under more scrutiny than it has since the high school shootings in the 1990s.
Entertainment Software Association head MICHAEL GALLAGHER was among a game industry delegation that was summoned to the White House in the weeks after Sandy Hook, to take part in talks that, it was widely agreed, were constructive and useful. And even though attempts have been made to once again pass laws restricting the sale of violent games, the media's connection between games and these senseless, enraging shootings, seems to have subsided.
In Sandy Hook itself, various attempts to make some sense of the tragedy continue to be made. In the particular realm of gaming two Newtown residents ANDREW CLURE and SCOTT CICCIARI temporarily opened an all-ages arcade intended to help the town heal and promote family values.
Gaming itself has long seen the wisdom of keeping its own house in order. The Entertainment Software Ratings Board system was introduced in the face of potential legislation after the Colombine massacre, but this year's long-awaited update introduced by ESRB head PATRICIA VANCE (above) was designed to simplify the system for an expanded non-core audience and to take into account the age of online and mobile games.
Games themselves continued to offer adults a variety of violent fantasies and, once again, the biggest grossing entertainment products of the year afforded (ostensibly) grown-ups the opportunity to engage in brutal simulations. Grand Theft Auto 5 from DAN HOUSER's Rockstar Games framed itself as a satire on gross American excess and was widely well-received, although many felt its approach, including a much-publicized torture scene, was itself grotesque and heavy-handed.
Debates on issues like the GTA 5 torture scene and the power of video game violence over real world behavior were held in the searing forum of social media, a place wielding powers to change that are still only dimly understood.
Social media has been with us for some years now, and yet it evolves constantly as a technology, leading to unpredictable changes in human behavior. Few people are as gloriously unpredictable as Fez creator PHIL FISH whose caustic use of Twitter to belittle perceived foes culminated in a blistering summertime argument with a critic, followed, amazingly, by what looked like a angry cancellation of Fez 2.
ADAM ORTH (below), a Microsoft employee, made some indelicate remarks in a Twitter conversation about always-online gaming. He found himself the target of social harassment online, something that other developers also complained about. It was an issue that came up repeatedly this year, as minor figures became, albeit briefly, public and accessible. In the heat of a controversy, they became vulnerable to the worst excesses of internet rage. Orth quit his job and went on to talk about the issue in a Game Developer Conference talk.
ESports has given us an entire new stratum of heroes to follow and emulate, its popularity through games like League of Legends now surpassing all expectations and filling arenas previously the preserve of sports finals and pop concerts. One pick among the galaxy of stars might be DANNY "SHIPHTUR" LE, the first pro-competitive games player to be granted a work visa in the United States, a clear sign that this is an entertainment mode that has very much come into its own.
The broadcasting of gaming is no longer the elite practice of competitive gaming leagues and kitted-up journos. New games consoles allow anyone to stream, as facilitated by the omnipresent Twitch and its broadcast production manager / streaming guru JUSTIN "THE GUNRUN" IGNACIO.
But even as the new age of Twitch emerges, the vanguard of old media holds the line, threatening creators of YouTube walkthroughs with all manner of legal calumny. How this nest of vipers untangles itself is a matter best left to 2014 and beyond. Certainly, 2013 brought mostly confusion and outrage.
Kickstarter is the inevitable culmination of social media in a capitalist society that is intimately connected to its entertainment pastimes. In gaming, the crowd-sourcing service gave us yet more proof that people-power can be mighty indeed. CHRIS ROBERTS (below) has raised a mind-boggling $35 million since 2012, through a hyper-targeted funding campaign for a PC space combat game called Star Citizen, a genre that that mainstream publishers deemed a non-starter. And so other venerable developers like David Braben, Richard Garriott and Brian Fargo are among those who have successfully followed along, raising money and retaining creative control over favored projects.
How this can be anything other than a positive development in the world is something even uber-conservatives wedded to the status quo have yet to rumble. But, inevitably, there are examples that are less happy. CHRIS TAYLOR attempted to leverage his and the equally-admired Gas Powered brand for a game called Wildman, without success, which then took the more traditional route of being acquired (by Wargaming). Kickstarter success does not always equal critical acclaim and many of the Kickstarters that studded 2013 will find their own destinies, one way or another, when they actually arrive in 2014.
Social media too has given a voice to those excluded by the traditional vertical silos of mass communication, and has shaken the flat landscapes of a pastime long assumed to be the country of straight, affluent, youngish white men.
There was also an uprising of live events in 2013 that sought to address issues of gender and sexuality in gaming. Game designer MATTIE BRICE was among many who flew the flag for LGBT issues in gaming, far too long shoved to the sidelines or roundly scorned. Games writers and designers attended and pledged to make a greater effort to represent more LGBT characters and themes in games.
In the last few years it has been an oft-repeated truism that gaming has spread to new demographics, lazily assumed by the mainstream to mean lonely, middle-aged women playing online puzzle games. The actual role and power of women in games came into a sharper focus in the past year as game designers, commentators and writers debated the issue.
Tomb Raider script-writer RHIANNA PRATCHETT moved the conversation onto #1reasontobe, that sought to inspire women to work in gaming, while making more grassroots efforts, speaking to female students who might be contemplating such a career. This then became a much-discussed panel at GDC chaired by veteran game designer BRENDA ROMERO, who was also vocally critical of an Independent Game Developers Association party at that event, featuring scantily-clad (female) dancers. She quit the IGDA in protest.
In the U.K, Media Molecule's SIOBHAN REDDY spoke at the Women In Games conference in London and on the BBC's hugely influential Women's Hour show about how to equalize the wide gender disparity in game development, also making the point that the overwhelming dominance of male leading characters in games, and the lack of meaningful and admirable female heroines, is something that needs to be addressed.
ANITA SARKEESIAN (above) rolled out an engaging and thoroughly researched series of video documentaries called Tropes vs Women in Video Games, that looked at how games themselves often seek to bolster sexist assumptions about gender and power.
Diversity is also geographic. Game designers in parts of the world that are not the West or East Asia are finding ways to create experiences that reflect the places they are from and the people who live there.
In Kenya, WESLEY KIRINYA was just one developer seeking to make games that speak to Africa's rich and varied culture, a trend that is happening across that continent, from Pretoria to Lagos.
In Lebanon, LEBNAN NADER is seeking to overcome local challenges, like a lack of available game development expertise, to create games with a Middle Eastern look and feel, that nonetheless have global appeal. In Ecuador, ESTEFANO PALACIOS from Freaky Creations made To Leave, a game about moving on from hardship and making a new life, a theme that is all too familiar in South America.
Here in the United States, developers are finding ways to represent communities who have generally been badly misrepresented in games. GLORIA O'NEILL is head of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council in Alaska. She has formed Upper Ones Games to make a game that truly represents Alaska Natives and Native Americans more broadly than their standing roles as sidekicks, drunks and minxes.
Meanwhile the Entertainment Software Association's RICH TAYLOR created a scholarship program designed to promote subjects in education that will help teach and inspire kids from minorities who want to get into gaming.
For all but the most frenzied misanthropes, these attempts to widen the definition and the reach of gaming represent not just change, but improvement.
Triumphs came in many other forms too numerable to detail, from the indie game development team getting their first game onto Steam, to the determined modder landing a first job. There are always stand-outs though, like DEAN HALL (below), the indefatigable creator of DayZ who took time out of his busy schedule to, y'know, climb Everest.
JACK TRETTON, head of Sony Computer Entertainment America is a sportsman of a different stripe. His corner office is draped in memorabilia like signed footballs, but although his athleticism may not stretch much further than the links, his competitive streak is no less fierce. When he finally retires, surely he will have occasion to look back at the moment he announced PlayStation 4's price, $100 lower than the competition at a rapturous E3 presentation, as a key highlight of a long career. It was a genuine, drop-the-mic-and walk-off-stage moment. It has become unfashionable to talk about any company "winning" E3, but in 2013, we saw one fella do just that.
PAOLA ANTONELLI, a senior curator of the Museum of Modern Art staged an exhibit dedicated to the design of video games and put in a solid appearance on Colbert as well as a TED talk to promote the show.
Heartwarming tale of the year goes to BATKID (aka, a five-year-old boy named Miles Scott) who took to the streets of San Francisco in November, along with game developer Eric Johnston, to foil a pretended crime spree. It was all part of a Make-A-Wish day's fun, for the lad whose leukemia is in remission.
Triumph too for GREG ZESCHUK, the BioWare co-founder who completed a fine career making games so he could go off and focus on a new job, making web videos about drinking beer. Someone's gotta do it.
And so, finally we are left with the newsmakers who also make things that we enjoy.
Sitting atop the tree of creativeness is one JJ ABRAMS who teamed up with font of creativity Valve in 2013 to make movies about Half-Life and Portal and a brand new game. Another much-admired artist is KEIJI INAFUNE, who announced plans and raised funds to make a spiritual successor to Mega Man, called Mighty No. 9. Reason enough to stick around into 2014.
Art, of course, has a price. IVAN BUCHTA (below) spent a chunk of the year in a Greek jail. He was on holiday and looking at military installations while also making a game, Arma 3, about a military conflict on a Greek island. He and his colleague Martin Pezlar were eventually released.
Remember PATRICE DESILETS? The high-flying Assassin's Creed creator once worked for Ubisoft but then went to THQ Montreal which was then acquired by Ubi which then fired Desilets and now it's in the realm of lawsuits. The result is that it's going to be a while before we see his game, 1666.
While the usual suspects made some great games in 2013, often salaried and backed by large marketing campaigns, gaming gave us various gems from individuals or very small teams.
There is only room to mention a representative few of these, like STEVE GAYNOR and his team's sublime family-relationship exploration game Gone Home. And LUCAS POPE whose Papers Please is as affecting a study into the nature of evil as you are likely to find. Or ZOE QUINN who made text-adventure Depression Quest that made you really understand a condition that is so often misunderstood. And DAVEY WREDEN whose witty Stanley Parable made such a mockery of game design shibboleths that many of the stuff we take for granted can never be viewed in quite the same light.
And somehow, we have come to the end, and there were so many more people we wanted to talk about, who, in the planning of this article, were excised from the long-list only after much huffing and puffing and sulking and screaming from various Polygon team-members, including this writer. This is the nature of lists. They are always, somehow, not right.
For everyone reading this, there will be a favored few people who brought you delight in 2013 and who are not on this list. You are probably right to be outraged. Now is as good a time as any to go online and tell those people how much you liked that thing they did. Wish them too, as we wish you, a heartfelt Happy New Year.
The entire Polygon news team contributed to this report.