Plugged In

The 5 biggest gaming stories of 2013

Plugged In

Another year is nearly in the books, and for gamers, it was a biggie.

Sony and Microsoft released their long-awaited next generation systems. Rockstar Games didn't just break records, it blew them to smithereens. Players saw tons of new avenues open up, while an increasingly connected world brought plenty of headaches.

Heck, even Monopoly was in the news, replacing the iron token with a cat. Is nothing sacred?

Whittling down the top stories of the year wasn't easy, but here's what stood out to us. (Think another gaming story was bigger? Chime in!)

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There can be only...two? (Credit: Sony/Microsoft)

The next-gen console war begins

It's been seven years since Sony released the PlayStation 3, and eight years since the Xbox 360 made its debut. Both systems are still going strong, but that’s the longest wait for new systems in the modern console era.

The fire was relit with the start of the next generation. Despite concerns that the conventional living room game experience was on its way out, Microsoft and Sony reported sales of over 2 million units within weeks of their new systems shipping. Most analysts expect the PS4 and Xbox One to cross the 3 million mark before the end of the year. That's a pretty clear sign that there's still plenty of life left in game consoles, the naysayers notwithstanding.

Armed with new social features, live streaming of games, the ability to easily post gameplay videos, and the integration of many living-room friendly components, both the PS4 and Xbox One felt a bit unfinished at launch. Both systems lack flagship system-selling software, but the potential is palpable. And we expect to see them really start to shine in the coming months.

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Online, offline (Credit: EA/CNET)

Online problems plague publishers

Playing games online is commonplace these days, but games requiring online connections -- or simply online modes in big titles -- were a serious sore spot all year long.

EA in particular had all kinds of problems delivering stable online experiences. The launch of SimCity, pegged to be one of the year’s biggest games, was a train wreck. The single-player game controversially required users to connect to the Internet to play, but upon the game's debut, servers were quickly overwhelmed, preventing anyone from playing the game for days. Later in the year, the massive shooter Battlefield 4 saw a slew of problems that led EA to halt development on upcoming expansions so it could focus instead on getting the core game right.

How bad did it get for EA? So bad that it led, in part, to the surprise resignation of the company's CEO in March.

EA wasn't alone in its online headaches, though. The launch of GTA Online was just as shaky, as Rockstar was caught unprepared for the influx of players. The developer ultimately offered players $500,000 in in-game cash as an apology. And most famously, Microsoft's initial plans to require a mandatory Internet connection with the Xbox One caused such a firestorm of controversy that the company was forced to reverse its policy just months before the system launched. Our future might be online, but our present isn't quite ready for the shift.

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Crime pays. (Credit: Rockstar Games)

Grand Theft Auto V’s sales soar

The Call of Duty series has conditioned us to expect overeager publisher proclamations about how quickly a top-tier game hits $1 billion in sales, but no one expected Grand Theft Auto V to manage the feat so quickly.

It took just three days for the game to hit the milestone, obliterating all records in the gaming and entertainment industry. In its first 24 hours, the game took in $800 million, also a record.

The sales were well deserved, though. Not only was there pent-up demand for a new GTA (which hadn't seen a new release for five years), but the game offers one of the most diverse virtual worlds players have ever seen. Even gamers who generally weren't fans of GTA games found themselves sucked into the adventures of Michael, Franklin and Trevor.

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Mama mia! (Credit: Nintendo)

The two faces of Nintendo

While Microsoft and Sony had plenty to celebrate in 2013, Nintendo would probably like a do-over.

The Wii U still hasn't found a foothold with gamers, putting up some of the worst early sales numbers of any console system. As of the end of September, life-to-date Wii U sales stood at 3.91 million units, according to the company. At the same point in its history, the original Wii had sold more than 13 million units. The system is no doubt in trouble.

But despite the doom and gloom, the company was buoyed by the 3DS. The handheld system, which itself got off to a sluggish start, turned into a stellar seller thanks to a strong software lineup and an early price cut. In the first half of the current fiscal year, Nintendo says it sold 3.89 million hardware units, while life-to-date sales at the end of September were closing in on 35 million (a number that has almost certainly been topped by now, thanks to the success of hits like Pokemon X & Y).

So which Nintendo will we get in 2014? The confident creator of amazing games like Super Mario 3D World and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds? Or the stubborn publisher who looks the other way and hopes gamers will repeatedly forgive its problems getting games out in a timely fashion?

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Micro-successful. (Credit: Ouya)

The rise (and fall?) of micro-consoles

While the Xbox One and PS4 enjoyed the lion's share of the spotlight this year, they weren’t alone. Enterprising developers far and wide leveraged all sorts of technology in an effort to upend the traditional movers and shakers in the home console business.

Trouble was, none of these micro-consoles have really caught fire.

Ouya, the crowd-funded console that ignited Kickstarter, was the biggest of the bunch, launching in June for $100. Unfortunately, the highest profile micro-console also turned out to be one of the most derided. Reviews were scathing, citing the mediocre controller and poor software interface. Developers have been quick to note that they're not making a lot of money on the system as well. But that's not stopping Ouya executives from talking about a version 2.0 of the system next year, even as they admit they made a lot of mistakes with the first draft of the console.

The Ouya had company. GameStick, an indie-focused device that discretely plugs into a TV's HDMI port, launched to little fanfare in November. In July, graphics company nVidia began selling The Shield, an Android-based handheld gaming system which lets players stream games from their PC gaming system. Critics were impressed the capabilities of the Shield, but its $399 price point gave them pause. Even Sony is testing the water with the PlayStation Vita TV, a device that lets you play PlayStation Vita games on your TV and stream PS4 games around the house.

But while all these systems talk a big game, they’ve yet to make a significant impact on the home console business. Perhaps things will truly be disrupted in 2014.

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