We made it. The nightmare of 2020 is over. In so many ways, and for so many reasons, this past calendar year was a total clusterfuck. We lost loved ones to a global pandemic, rallied to combat racism and injustice, and nervously watched the foundation of democracy in America come under attack from within.
As we isolated to slow the spread of COVID-19 months passed. The lockdowns, distancing and self-quarantining took its toll on our health and we struggled to find ways to stay connected. For many, gaming became our primary social outlet, a welcome escape from reality. Keeping up with the latest gaming news also helped distract from the endlessly depressing 2020 news cycle.
Remarkably, while the world crumbled and many industries struggled, gaming became more popular than ever. Aside from the surprising news that sales were skyrocketing and that new players were coming into the fold there were plenty of other huge, jaw dropping, and impactful stories in 2020. Here are a few that made our short list.
5. Fortnite removed from mobile app stores, Epic sues Apple.
Why did some of the largest and well known companies on the planet go to war in 2020? Well that depends on who you ask, but the short answer is Fortnite money. Back in August, Epic introduced a way to accept direct payments for Fortnite microtransactions on iOS and Android. If you hadn’t heard, v-bucks have been incredibly lucrative for Epic Games as they reportedly have made $1 billion dollars through Fortnite on mobile in just over two years.
As Epic attempted to cut out the middleman and sell discounted v-bucks direct to consumers, Apple quickly responded by pulling Fortnite from the App Store. Epic claimed that Apple’s traditional 30% cut of all App Store purchases was harmful to third party developers, while Apple claimed that Epic clearly violated previously accepted terms. Soon after, Google followed suit by pulling the Fornite app off their Android virtual storefront.
Since then there have been too many twists and turns to cover quickly. Long story short, what began as a shocking headline that access to one of the most popular games of all time was in jeopardy escalated into an epic feud (pun intended) that continues into 2021. That’s right, the war isn’t over. Epic’s antitrust lawsuit against Apple is on-going and their ‘Free Fornite’ PR campaign is in full swing.
4. Halo delayed, Xbox loses its flagship next gen launch title
The Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X (and Series X) were due to launch in 2020, and usually the promise of a brand new console generation would generate peak hype, but we had quickly learned nothing was certain in the age of COVID. As the pandemic forced developers to work from home, title after title suffered setbacks and delays. With the apparent lack of next gen launch exclusives, especially on the Xbox side, some questioned if next gen was ‘ready’. We were asked to ‘please be excited’ for the hardware itself, higher locked frame rates, ray-tracing and faster load times.
Still, Xbox fans hung their hopes on Halo Infinite which was the flagship launch title due to premiere with the new console gen. In keeping with Microsoft’s unique ecosystem approach, the game would be playable on a range of consoles. Some wondered if making the game playable on the older Xbox One SKUs as well as the newer beefier hardware would somehow ‘hold back’ Halo Infinite, preventing 343 from utilizing the full power of next gen.
When the first gameplay demo of Halo Infinite was finally shown during the game showcase in July fan reaction was divisive to say the least. While some were more than satisfied with a return to the simple and saturated style of Halo: Combat Evolved with visual upgrades, others fumed at the pop-in issues, texture and lighting quality, and the now famous ‘Craig’ character model. For many, this was not the impressive next generation showcase they expected, let alone the game that would lift the Halo franchise back into the limelight.
On August 11th 343 studio head Chris Lee (who would shortly thereafter ‘step back’ from the game) announced that Halo would not make the next gen console launch. “We have made the difficult decision to shift our release to 2021 to ensure the team has adequate time to deliver a Halo game experience that meets our vision…” Embarrassingly, previously scheduled marketing, tie-in promotions, and next gen television commercials featuring Halo Infinite continued to launch throughout the year. It wasn’t until December before we learned that the game was now expected in ‘Fall 2021’. If the trickles of headlines hinting at continued development woes for the game are any indication I wouldn’t bet on it.
3. Microsoft buys ZeniMax Media for 7.5 billion
The consensus was that Playstation had ‘won’ the last generation and an over simplified (and somewhat unfair) critique for years coming from detractors was that ‘Xbox had no worthwhile games.’ After the delay of Halo Infinite, many wondered if Microsoft had missed their chance to start off strong this gen. Could the allure of powerful hardware, fast load times, the incredible value of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, and the promise of future Microsoft Game Studio titles be enough to bring more people into their ecosystem?
On September 21st, the head of Xbox, Phil Spencer revealed the ace he had been hiding up his sleeve. Microsoft had purchased ZeniMax Media, parent company of Bethesda Softworks for $7.5 billion dollars…in cash. The announcement that Bethesda, one of the largest game developer/publishers in the world, was joining Xbox wasn’t only a mic drop in the sense that it was unexpected, the historic move boosted excitement for their next generation into the stratosphere. The acquisition meant that a slew of experienced studios (including id Software, ZeniMax Online, Arkane, and MachineGames) were joining Xbox and bringing top tier franchise IP with them including, The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Wolfenstein, and DOOM.
Even if the fruits of this acquisition are far off (who knows when we will get a first glimpse of big upcoming games like Starfield) with this addition Microsoft now has 23 first party studios. Yes, Xbox would have games, and if the pedigree of the game studios were any indication, it would have a ton of quality games at that.
2. E3 joins the list of conventions cancelled due to COVID-19
Without a doubt the global pandemic was the defining ongoing event of 2020 by far. It continues to take its toll in lives and livelihoods and it’s impact will be felt for years to come. The only reason the news of E3 being cancelled in 2020 didn’t take our top spot is because anyone could have seen it coming.
For years E3 suffered overcrowding issues, then attendance woes, and finally major exhibitors and publishers began to relinquish their space on the show floor to hold digital events or presentations off-site. Oh, and don’t forget the fallout from the data incident after the ESA failed to protect detailed contact information for journalists who had registered to cover the event. By the time the industry leader Sony decided to not participate in 2019 the writing was on the wall.
Of course the cancellation of so many other public events, conferences, trade-shows, and even professional sports clearly telegraphed E3’s cancellation ahead of any official news. In many ways the death of E3 was inevitable and the pandemic simply sped up the process. I would be surprised if it made a comeback post-pandemic as the gaming industry has learned to do without the pomp and pageantry.
1. Cyberpunk launches broken on console, pulled from PSN
CD Projekt Red began commenting on the game that would follow their critically acclaimed title The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt way back in 2012. What followed was nearly a full decade of waiting. With each passing tid-bit of information and occasional teaser trailer anticipation grew. A behind closed door demo was presented to press at E3 in 2018 and 2019 that both garnered high praise adding fuel to the fire.
Although the game was plagued by at least three major delays and controversy concerning development crunch there weren’t many covering the industry expressing concern that the game’s long development would hurt the end product. Most believed CD Projekt Red’s numerous apologies and statements regarding the health of the title. In January of 2020 studio head Adam Badowski stated convincingly that game delays were the result of their commitment to excellence, “We want Cyberpunk 2077 to be our crowning achievement for this generation and postponing launch will give us the precious months we need to make the game perfect.” By the time the marketing push (see Night City Wire) was in full swing and a final release date was set in stone Cyberpunk 2077 had made numerous promises that it would be worth the wait.
It started with a murmur. Only the PC version of the game was sent to outlets for review, and only a short time before release. Oddly, the review agreement included the stipulation that outlets would not be able to include gameplay footage in their video reviews, only pre-approved footage amounting to pre-canned in-game trailers were allowed. There were hints that CDPR had focused on the PC version over console, but no official statements stating that developing the version for current gen consoles was an insurmountable challenge.
When the review embargo lifted and the console version of Cyberpunk 2077 finally reached players the truth was revealed. Numerous bugs, crashes, frame rate drops, texture and pop-in issues were present on console. The events that unfolded in the weeks after launch were littered with negative headlines, weak apologies, and mind-blowingly botched PR statements by CDPR.
The worst of which was undoubtedly directing those who had purchased the game from Microsoft and Sony digital storefronts to contact them for a refund, a process that was apparently not cleared with them beforehand leading to that refund avenue being denied. CDPR promised that fixes were on the way in the form of hotfixes and larger updates in the coming months but in a move that rocked the gaming world, PlayStation ultimately decided to pull the game from their PSN online store. All of a sudden you couldn’t even choose to purchase the console version of the most anticipated game of 2020.
The state of the game on console and the resulting fallout was so terrible, a recent New York Times article summarized the launch this way, “Cyberpunk’s rollout is one of the most visible disasters in the history of video games.” By all accounts the PC version of Cyberpunk 2077 received critical praise, though far from revolutionary the game performs well and looks remarkable if you have a top of the line machine. I enjoyed what I played of the console version running on Series X, before an abundance of glitches and crashes forced me to put it back on the shelf.
Sadly, the damage to CDPR’s reputation was done and the merits of the game itself have been completely overshadowed by what appears at best to be a lack of transparency, and at worst a deceptive plot to cash-in on millions of console pre-orders. In fact, CDPR is being sued by investors who are claiming that they were misled about the games performance ahead of its release, so the train wreck continues into 2021.
Happy New Year everyone!