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2013 was a year littered with pockets of genuine and hard-felt surprise. Between living up to our bittersweet expectations of layoffs and canceled game projects, a long-standing studio was shuttered — not for lack of funds but in the fallout of one of the biggest entertainment mergers in recent history. Corporate heads turned E3 into a reality show with some out-of-left-field sniping, and Nintendo made a 3DS without all that bothersome 3D.
But that wasn’t all that made 2013 a genuinely surprising year in the game industry. Let’s start from the top and break down the past 12 months of confusing decisions, regretful losses, and blindsiding reveals.
Disney shuts LucasArts down
Original story: Disney shutters publisher LucasArts
Mike Minotti already covered how we felt about this closure in his Worst of 2013: Announcements and screw-ups piece earlier this week, but there is more to this studio closing than just a few miffed fans. LucasArts hadn’t been the bastion of quality adventure and Star Wars games for years by this point, but it still had one potential ace up its sleeve at the time of its shuttering: Star Wars 1313. The loss of this potentially grittier take on one of the biggest entertainment brands in the world was deeply felt, especially after its strong showing at E3 the previous year.
There seemed to be enough in the LucasFilm vaults to keep LucasArts alive despite the merger with the media giant, even just as an HD-remake factory for its pantheon of classic games. But with Disney partnering with Electronic Arts exclusively for all future Star Wars releases, Disney simply no financial need to keep the old House of Three-Headed Monkeys around. It made sense from a business standpoint, but closing the book on such a storied label entirely — just when things seemed to take a turn for the better — was a bittersweet surprise few had prepared for.
Sony disses at E3
Original Story: Follow our Sony E3 press-briefing liveblog right here
E3 is frequently the peak of the industry’s yearly surprises, but they usually revolve around, you know, the games. This year might as well have been 1990, as Sony stole the show by saying it did what Microsoft doesn’t, and it didn’t even need to promise blast processing. Sony Computer Entertainment of America CEO Jack Tretton dominated the expo conversation not with any mind-blowing announcements for the future but a slideshow embrace of the present.
Microsoft hadn’t weathered the rumors of the upcoming Xbox One’s draconian used-game policy well, and its E3 press conference offered more prerendered game footage than answers. Sony ran with it, and with a few choice allusions to Our Rival Who Shall Not Be Named, the PlayStation publisher had its E3 audience practically giving a standing ovation for allowing its players to use their existing disc-based games. It was an impressive bit of corporate subterfuge, Sony managed to slide the fact that PlayStation Plus was required for multiplayer access in between uproarious fits of applause and a $399 price. Giant Enemy what now?
Microsoft flip-flops at E3
In contrast, Microsoft could not hold an interview without igniting the fervor of the Internet. After an underwhelming first public unveiling more concerned with seamless media integration than game content, Microsoft continued to put feet in mouths at seemingly every opportunity. In a particularly meme-worthy gaff, then-president of Microsoft Interactive Entertainment Don Mattrick effectively told gamers that didn’t want an online check-in system to just stick with their Xbox 360s. This was right before the company backpedaled on many of those same features.
And backpedal it did. A week after E3, Microsoft released a statement effectively demolishing all of the touted connectivity features of the Xbox One in response to overwhelming negative consumer response. The online check-in system was pared back to a day and then cut outright, and gamers could now sell and loan out their discs at will and play downloaded games offline from their hard drives. If the early holiday sales figures were any indication, the change in policy seemed to have worked. But for a corporation of Microsoft’s size to trip up such a crucial PR initiative was a sight to behold.
Nintendo makes a 3DS without 3D
Like many of Nintendo’s hardware announcements, what begins as a target for near-universal ridicule is proven absolutely genius once it hits retail. The $130 “Pokemon machine,” obscure, no-hinged shape and cheap plastic feel be damned, helped the Big N reach a key demographic — young children. By aiming for durability and ease of use, Nintendo hit up an audience too young for stereoscopic 3D but just right for the new Pokémon X and Y. Launching the handheld with one of their most proven kid-friendly franchises was a near Tetris/Game Boy level of brilliant synergy, and its low price made it an ideal gift for the holiday season.
Now, if only Nintendo could work that same magic on the Wii U. …
Sega buys Atlus
A few years ago, Sega barely had its own house in order, having to downsize internally to just remain afloat. But after outbidding 19 other companies earlier in the year, Sega purchased Index Corp., parent company of — among other things — the video game publisher Atlus. The move sparked worry from those familiar with Sega’s finicky handling of porting hit Japanese games to West — and intense anticipation from those already picturing the Yakuza/Persona crossover possibilities. It’s far too early to tell how or if the management styles of the two different gamemakers will affect either company’s productions, but the purchase points to at least an immediately more stable future for both.
Watch Dogs delay leaves next-gen lacking a hit
Delays of major game releases haven’t been that surprising a headline for the past few years now (no one really thought South Park: The Stick of Truth would release before 2014, did they?,) especially with the annual migration of holiday games moving to the next year to avoid the Call of Duty blitz. But Watch Dogs left some hardware in a serious lurch with its jump to next year. It was one of the prominent titles debuting with the new consoles from Microsoft and Sony, and the absence of Ubisoft’s cyberthief action adventure lead to some pretty confused consumers and hectic release rearranging by the console-makers.
The PlayStation 4 in particular found itself hard up for promised games at its November launch. Not only was every box adorned with a character from a game that wouldn’t even make the so-called launch window, but having the Watch Dogs PlayStation 4 bundle with no copies of the game to give meant a lot of vouchers for other games or IOUs. Whether the delay will bring that extra layer of polish to Watch Dogs remains to be seen — Ubisoft certainly made the most of the release gap with the surprising return to form of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag — but keeping it out of our shiny new boxes for their first holiday on shelves took a deep bite from both launches.
Carmack trades id for Oculus
High-profile departures aren’t too out of the ordinary in an industry as mercurial as video games. But John Carmack, a key player in the ’90s shooter market and creator of some of the most legendary game engines ever produced, dropping his long-held post at id Software for the up-and-comers at Oculus VR was cause for more than a raised eyebrow. Initially reported in April as a secondary position to the one he held at id, id studio director Tom Willits confirmed in late November that it would be a permanent switch. A man whose resume could land him in some of the most prestigious engineering positions imaginable sided with a crowd-funded project by a still unproven virtual reality firm. It was a move few expected, and it closes out a year of legitimate surprises.