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Game over for 2013: Nintendo’s annus horribilis and other cautionary tales

A Super Mario figure greets visitors as children play at Nintendo showroom in Tokyo, Wednesday, July 31, 2013.

Shizuo Kambayashi/AP

As 2013 winds down, next-generation consoles are at the top of many video gamers' minds. Yet it was a busy year for the medium beyond the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, with big events laying the groundwork for potential major changes in 2014.

It was actually Nintendo that officially kicked off the eighth-generation of consoles with its launch of the Wii U late last year. But it was an inauspicious start, to say the least. With a tablet-like controller that often made for difficult-to-explain "asymmetric gameplay," buyers and developers alike stayed away.

Nintendo posted heavy losses in 2013, with Wii U sales between April and September being absolutely dismal – the company sold only 460,000, or just five per cent of its 12-month target. Executives are hoping for a turnaround this holiday season with a strong lineup of games including Super Mario 3D World, but may soon have to admit that the sun may already be setting on their latest console.

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The Japanese stalwart wasn't the only big company to see bad news this year. California-based Electronic Arts had its own storm to weather with the March release of SimCity, the world-building simulation game for PCs. EA's servers simply couldn't handle the demand for the game, which required players to have an always-on internet connection.

The situation got so bad, Amazon pulled sales of the game while EA had to scale back on its features and then ultimately offer free games to early purchasers as an apology. SimCity may very well go down as the most disastrous game launch of all time.

At the other end of the spectrum, small companies continued to make their marks in 2013, with a number of indie games making waves and finding success. Guacamelee!, a game for both the PlayStation 3 and handheld PlayStation Vita from Toronto-based Drinkbox Studios, raised eyebrows for its cartoonish stylism in April. Gone Home, a mystery/exploration game by Portland-based The Fullbright Company, wowed critics upon its release for the PC in August.

Both presaged some higher-profile releases for next-generation consoles expected next year, from Toronto-based Capybara Games' Below for the Xbox One to The Witness for the PS4 from indie kingpin Jonathan Blow.

From indie success, it was back to debacles as Microsoft laid out its vision for the next-generation of video games, starting in May. At its initial unveiling of the Xbox One, the company barely made mention of games at all, focusing instead on the upcoming console's ability to connect to and voice control TV services. Gamers weren't impressed to see their interests being put on the back burner.

The company then followed that up by announcing a raft of consumer-unfriendly policies for the upcoming console, such as an "always-on" requirement for it to check in online at least once a day, plus a restriction on reselling used games. To say that gamers freaked out would be an understatement.

At the Electronic Entertainment Expo in June, Sony showed Microsoft the error of its ways when its executives got a loud and prolonged ovation for rejecting those policies on their own upcoming PS4. The Xbox maker reversed itself in short order, meaning that the used game status quo would continue into the next generation (for now).

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Amid all of these controversies from the bigger game companies, it was only a matter of time before a reactionary force coalesced. That seemed to be the case with Ouya, a San Francisco-based startup that set records on crowd-funding site Kickstarter with promises of nothing less than a revolution. The company wanted to make an inexpensive, Android-based home console that would offer up free games from independent publishers. Gamers would then only pay for the games if they liked them.

The $99 console finally arrived at retail in June and, while it showed some promise, also fell flat for many. Whether it was laggy controls or a dearth of games that weren't already available elsewhere, the Ouya posted only light sales, according to tracking company NPD Group. Some developers also expressed disappointment with sales. The revolution was clearly not quite ready.

In August, Disney jumped on another bandwagon – not a revolution per se, but definitely a game changer (pardon the pun) – with Disney Infinity, a product that marries toys and games. Started by Activision in 2011, with its blockbuster Skylanders franchise, the games-that-zap-real-world-toys-into-them trend is in full swing now, with Disney's release posting strong initial sales despite lacklustre reviews. Odds are good that any publisher worth its salt is currently planning its own hybrid kids franchise, which means that the trend is about to be swamped by over-saturation.

Washington-based Valve Corp. tapped into the same revolutionary spirit espoused by Ouya with its three-part Steam-oriented announcement in September. The company is developing its own Steam operating system, which other hardware makers will be able to use to make "Steam Machine" consoles that will ultimately be controlled by touch-pad equipped Steam controllers.

With the company's highly successful Steam game download service for computers continuing to game momentum and prototypes of the upcoming consoles shipping to testers this month, it's looking more and more like Valve's attempt at a revolution is… er… gaining steam.

Despite the big announcements, September's game headlines really belonged to one company and one release: Rockstar Games, and its latest magnum opus, Grand Theft Auto V. A technical and creative masterpiece, the long-awaited open-world game wasted no time in shattering Guinness World Records – seven of them, actually – including the "fastest entertainment franchise to earn $1-billion" (it only took three days).

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With supposedly better-looking next-gen titles just around the corner, GTA V's enduring legacy may well be that no other game will be able to match its technical achievements for some time, despite having more hardware horsepower to work with. Of course, that sentiment doesn't apply to its troubled online mode, which launched shortly after the main game in a debacle reminiscent of SimCity.

That said, GTA V was also the perfect bookmark to a generation of consoles and particularly 2013, which was a year of reboots (Tomb Raider, Splinter Cell: Blacklist), prequels (God of War: Ascension, Gears of War: Judgment) and endless colon-heavy sequels (Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, Batman: Arkham Origins, Call of Duty: Ghosts). While indies have arisen as the foil to these mega-franchises, there's little doubt that the modern games industry is taking fewer and fewer chances, with the focus firmly on established properties no matter how stale they may be.

Over in mobile games, investors' exuberance over the still-unsettled world continued as hits such as Clash of Clans and Candy Crush Saga continued to make more money than some big-budget console games. In October, Japanese telecom company SoftBank paid $1.5-billion for a controlling stake in Finland's Supercell, maker of Clash of Clans.

That's a continuation of the mobile bonanza from years past, which saw the likes of PopCap acquired by EA for more than $1-billion in 2011 or Zynga's initial public offering that netted $7-billion. Clearly, investors believe there's still gold in them there glass-tapping games.

The year wrapped up, of course, with the long-awaited launch of the PS4 and Xbox One. While some observers – buoyed by the recent resurgence of PC gaming, the growth of mobile and the Wii U's flop – had proclaimed the console dead, strong sales of both new devices seem to indicate anything but. The PS4, for its part, looks to be out to an early lead between the two, with the numbers suggesting that it is indeed the fastest-selling console in U.K. history, at the very least.

As 2014 nears, it certainly looks like gaming – in its myriad of permutations, platforms and products – is only going to continue to get bigger.

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About the Author

Peter Nowak has been writing about technology for 20 years, with a focus on trends and how they affect the world. He worked at The Globe and Mail between 1997 and 2004 before moving to China and then New Zealand, where he won the award for best technology reporter at the New Zealand Herald. More


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