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The Top Five Innovative Games of 2012

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There's a lot to talk about already this year. Both software and hardware are pushing boundaries at an amazing rate, with no signs of slowing down. What are some standouts?

1. Triple Town

Image © Warren Schultz

Despite its notoriety in the press as "another game Zynga ripped off," it deserves to stand on its own merits. It's a genuinely fresh take on "match three" games that doesn't actually feel like a re-skinned version of Bejeweled.

The premise is simple: The player has a deck of building components to draw from, and a 6x6 grid of squares on which to place components (which is partially pre-populated at the game's start). Components are placed strategically to allow for matches of 3 (or more, for bonuses). Combining the components turns them into a higher-grade component (and more points).

For example: You have two pieces of grass in a row, and place a third next to them. They combine to create a shrub where you placed the last piece of grass. Three shrubs form a tree, trees form a house, etc.

Adding to the complexity are Wild Giant Bears, which will hop around each turn and prevent you from matching your building blocks. Box a bear in and he turns to a tombstone. Get three bears boxed in, Goldilocks, and you'll build a different type of building. Like many good games, it is deceptively simple, and very addictive.

2. Transmedia-Enhanced Gaming (Mass Effect 3)

Image © EA

The concept is that the developer/publisher release content on other platforms or media which allow the player to advance their single or multiplayer game (skills, progress, equipment, etc). Web-based games, retail promotional items (buy a soft drink, get a virtual weapon), action figures, mobile games, books and comics , and alternate reality games are just some of the more common ways developers use to promote their game.

Mass Effect 3 has, to date, an iOS FPS (Infiltrator), the Datapad app/game, cross-promotion with 38 Studios' Kingdoms of Amalur, collectible figures, and a digital book, The Art of the Mass Effect Universe.

Mass Effect: Datapad allows the player to browse the game's encyclopedia, follow their Twitter feed, and play a simple minigame that grants a higher score (War Resources) in the full game's strategic map-which equates to more choices for how the game ends.

In Mass Effect: Infiltrator, the player takes the role of an enemy soldier gone rogue, now fighting on the side of good. Winning that game also gives the player more War Resources.

Playing the Amalur demo will give the ME3 character a new type of armor.

Purchasing the Mass Effect art digital book or figurines will grant a "booster pack," essentially a crate of random equipment for multiplayer.

This is only the beginning. There has been talk by other developers about using the iPad as a real-time inventory, map, or other such features for their console titles.

It's easy to see the financial motivation behind this. The only question that remains is: Will the players embrace this, or choose to rebel against additional purchases to get what is perceived to be the full experience?

3. Johann Sebastian Joust

Image © Bennett Foddy, used with permission of Gutefabrik.

It's a video game without video. Really.

The concept is simple: In the real world, attempt to jostle your friend's motion controller while keeping yours stable. The tempo of the game is controlled by the playback speed of pieces of J.S. Bach.

Watch the video and come back. I'll wait.

It seems like a hard sell, but once you watch the video, you know there's something new and exciting there. It's a brilliant example of the hacking of game hardware that has been going on since the Wii hit the market. With the advent of motion-sensitive controllers (PlayStation Move) and sensor bars/cameras (Kinect, PlayStation Eye), there can be much more going on in the real world than on-screen. The television is no longer an anchor to the player, but merely a feedback mechanism for real-world play.

4. Quantum Conundrum

Kim Swift (creator of what became Portal) is at it again with Quantum Conundrum.

This time around, you play as a child who must navigate her mad scientist uncle's house full of puzzles to rescue him. While it is conceptually similar to Portal, the mechanics are novel. The player has the ability to jump between dimensions where physical properties are drastically different. (In "Fluffy," objects have the mass and appearance of plush toys.) The switch between these dimensions is immediate, and allows the player to combine the effects to solve puzzles.

The video gives a sense as to how complicated this can be. It will be very interesting to see if Swift can pull off another cult classic.

5. Double Fine's "Adventure Game" Kickstarter

Image © Kickstarter

This doesn't exactly qualify as an innovative game, per se, but Tim Schafer and his team at DF have forever broken the perception that publishers are needed to make a big game. In the course of a month, they succeeded in proving that the fans will put the money out there to make a point & click adventure game (a form thought by many to be lost to obsolescence).

Since that time, Brian Fargo and inXile have launched a Kickstarter that has exceeded its funding target and pushed past the $1 million dollar barrier in a week.

Publishers, particularly in console gaming, will still be required for some projects. But when it comes to funding the games that are deemed too "niche" by publishers, there is now a viable option.

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